President George W Bush walked in for a scripted drop-by meeting — to say hello, do a power handshake and disappear back into the White House.
But he went off script. Turning to his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, he said, “Now she is worried what I am going to say.”
Rice did look worried. Bush, by then, had amassed an unenviable treasure of extempore gaffes. But the president made clear he was riding the wagon now.
“He asked Jaswant (Jaswant Singh) if he had seen the Rose Garden (of the White House),” said Richard Celeste, then US ambassador to India, who was present.
Singh hadn’t. Bush led him out with an arm around him.
That was in October, 2001.
With another BJP government preparing to take office in India, Washington DC has been awash with nostalgia for Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure. As White House gears up to do business with a man it struck off its visa list, there are mixed feelings about Narendra Modi.
There is excitement in sections of the administration that feel the “things will begin to happen now” — and there is a long list of to-do agenda items: economic reforms, trade and others.
But Ashley Tellis, a longtime India expert, warns that Modi government will be different: “Vajpayee ran a collegium, Modi will run a government that really centers on himself.”
Modi’s decisions will be final in a way that Vajapyee’s were not. There were many who inputted into Vajpayee’s decisions — LK Advani and Jaswant Singh in particular.
HT Explains: What can US, Pakistan expect from Modi the PM
“This is going to be a new experience for the United States,” said Tellis, adding, “and I don’t think it’s going to be an easy one.”
Frank Wisner, former US ambassador to India who is held in high regard by the Obama administration, is worried. “We don’t know the new leaders of the BJP,” he said, voicing a commonly held position. “There has been a generational change in the party,” he added.
Finally, the question weighing heavily on everyone’s mind: Will Narendra Modi as prime minister forget the slight of being ostracized by the US after the Gujarat riots of 2002?
President Barack Obama may have started the process of expunging that chapter from India-US relations by inviting Modi to the United States and the White House, but experts have advised caution.
“He is not someone known to forgive and forget easily,” said Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania. Modi himself has not addressed that issue with clarity yet.