Ansari in wonderland: Chaotic tea party after slip of tongue


New Delhi : A slip of tongue by the home secretary, who announced new Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari’s election, drew gasps from the dignitaries assembled at Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Ashoka Hall for Ansari’s swearing-in ceremony Saturday evening.

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After President Pratibha Patil was seated for the ceremony, Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta had to formally announce Ansari’s election as uprashtrapati (Vice President). Only, he said Ansari was elected rashtrapati (President).

Gupta’s faux pas drew a collective gasp from the audience that included Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

However, the ceremony, which lasted barely three minutes, went off without any interruption.

The atmosphere inside the majestic Ashoka Hall, famous for its ambience and wall paintings, was sombre as dignitaries – including ministers, diplomats, political leaders and MPs – came in and took their designated seats.

While cabinet ministers took the first row, leaders of allies in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were in the second and third rows.

The Left leaders – those present and particularly those absent – drew many whispers, especially after the prime minister’s unprecedented challenge to them. In an interview to a Kolkata-based English daily he had dared the Left to withdraw support if they did not agree with him on the India-US nuclear deal.

“Where is Prakash Karat,” one of the guests was heard asking. “He (Ansari) was his choice and he is not attending the ceremony.” The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) general secretary was away in Kerala to attend a party meeting.

Interestingly, Karat’s colleague Sitaram Yechury – who flew in from Hyderabad – and Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani came together just seconds before the function began.

Ansari, who was walking around and shaking hands with the guests, appeared as unflappable as ever. He took his seat just as the president’s guards announced her arrival with a fanfare.

The prized moments for the photographers came when Ansari’s predecessor Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who quit the post after he lost the July 19 presidential election, embraced the new vice president.

Ansari was seen giving a warm hug to senior Congress leader V. Narayan Swamy, who was in charge of his election campaign.

But the oath-taking ceremony was completely overshadowed by the tea that followed. Scribes, who were eager to get comments from the prime minister, Sonia Gandhi and the Left leaders on the nuclear deal, virtually pounced on them.

As Manmohan Singh appeared to be obliging, the journalists crowded around him and shot off questions. His smile did not waver.

Amid the chaos, Ansari and his wife chatted with some of the dignitaries and left the room quietly, immediately after President Patil was escorted out.