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March 23, 2000


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Clinton is a hit in Nayala

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Josy Joseph in Nayala

He shook hands with people, danced, and even broke security cordons to get to the locals. American President Bill Clinton thrilled this village outside Jaipur as a stage-managed show dissolved into a lively interactive session and perhaps one of the most memorable parts of his five-day visit to India.

Clinton said the illiterate women of this village taught him a "new vision" to help rural women of his own country, and accepted a membership offered to him by the successful dairy project run by village women. He promised to showcase his membership at the White House, and assured the woman sarpanch of a neighbouring village that she could win any election anywhere in the world unopposed.

With the smart card issued by the dairy in his pocket and a rakhi on his hand, Clinton stepped out of the majestic Fategarh Haveli into the blazing sun and ploughed into the group of a few hundred villagers standing behind barricades and lathi-wielding policemen. The crowd was delighted.

He shook hands with almost everyone on the roadside for almost half-a-kilometre, waved to those further off, stepped into and left to a roaring farewell.

Clinton arrived in his limousine at 11.25 am at the Fategarh Haveli, a mansion over 100 years old built by a former Prime Minister of Jaipur. He was garlanded and showered flowers by the village women, and Mohini Devi, one of the village volunteers (sathin), tied a chooda rakhi on his wrist.

A group of women, dressed in traditional attires, sang a song in the traditional Rajasthani folk style. As Dr Kanchan Mathur, sociologist who acted as the official interlocutor between the President and the villagers, translated the song into English, Clinton burst into laughter.

Roughly it meant:

"I get up at four in the morning daily, I clean, mop, wash and cook. Even then they think I am not doing any work. Where do I go and tell my worries? Where do I go and tell my pains?"

Then as stunned officials watched, the small group of women began to shake hands with Clinton. A senior official later said, "Till a couple of days back, we found so hard to convince them to remove their ghoonghat while receiving the President. When he actually came, they broke every tradition, and actually shook hands!"

After the welcome, Mr Clinton went into a hall where the computerised counter of the Dhoblai Diary Co-operative Society was located.

As the women started narrating their struggles to over come social stigma and gain economic independence, the spoon-fed language gave way to more natural conversation, and the fear of facing the world's most powerful political figure vanished in the general air of informality.

Shakuntala Sharma, the sarpanch of the neighbouring Saligrampura village, told him how she and a group of women had brought about a remarkable improvement in water management, are fighting to end child marriages, and managed to extend the primary school in the village to class eight. She said she had given her five daughters a good education, and that one of them was a teacher in the local school. Because of her activities, "the village unanimously elected me the sarpanch," she told the President.

Replied Mr Clinton: "Please tell her that she would win without opposition wherever she stands for election." The entire crowd burst into laughter.

Santosh Sharma, who married at the age of 17 and was a widow by 22, told President about her struggle against own family, how she refused family pressure to marry her husband's younger brother, and lived through the death of her one son. Finally, how she grouped women of Nayala to start the Dhoblai Dairy Co-operative Society.

To take on a group of men, who set up a parallel milk society when she was away, she doubled the commission for those who supplied milk to her society, and forced the menfolk to close down their venture in 20 days.

"Unko chuti kardiya," she told the President.

Stories were several more. Breaking away from a traditional head of state's poker face and formalities, Mr Clinton stretched his stay at the village much beyond the time schedule and snubbed a Secret Service personnel who told Dr Mathur that the time is over: "You can wait," the President said.

He asked women questions, replied to their queries and raised the level of what would have been a mundane formality. The women offered him a smart card issued to their dairy members, and he graciously accepted it: "I am thrilled to be a member here. I will put it in the White House as a symbol of the empowerment of rural women."

He later signed a banner for the dairy:

"March 23, Nayala.
Thanks, Bill Clinton."

The women present there too put their signatures on the banner "which would be framed and exhibited in the dairy office".

While Santosh Sharma showed him how they measure fat content in the milk using computers and how the smart card is used to maintain details of each member, Clinton admitted with humility: "With your computers, you have given me a new vision for the rural women of my country.

"What I want to know...are there any men who support in your struggle?" the president asked the women. And the reply was not a clean certificate to the male: "Before the existence of panchayati raj system, we hardly had any support from men. But, things have improved after that."

"I have learnt a lot while talking to you," he admitted. "I will use this information while dealing with this kind of subject. I hope people in India will know from my talk with you about what you are doing in these villages," the President was gracious.

He later participated in a debate with the Panchayat, headed by a Scheduled Tribe sarpanch Kaluram Meena, livening up a drab governmental function into an interaction that Meena described as a "chat with an equal." The sarpanch said, "Accha lagaa. Hindustaniyose baath karne jaise lega."

So did the village gain anything out of Clinton's visit? "Hum ko Internet mil gaya. Saaf safai hogaya, road achcha bengaye", says Meena, who also got four more telephones in his village, where till the last week there were only four of them.

During the interaction, Meena asked the President: "You have been here for three days now. Do you think India is backward?

"No. But what I hope is that people all over the world to see India in a complete a way." he asserted that Indians can bring about sea change in the existing scenario where there is "abject poverty and illiteracy", as they have their belief in democracy and local governance.

During the panchayat meeting too, Clinton signed a banner.

For Dr Mathur, a member of the Institute of Development Studies who acted as the interpreter, the President and the villagers, admitted: "I felt he was fairly honest, sincere, encouraging and sensitive. It was contrary to whatever I thought, because of Lewinsky affair etc."

It was after the panchayat meet, as his official visit came to an end, that William Jefferson Clinton began to really loosen up. The president, acknowledged as one of the most intelligent and lively head of America in recent history, joined a group of Rajasthani folk dancers and tapped his feet to the rhythm of the local singers and drums.

"Hum ko vishwas hi nahin hua. Woh bahut achcha lag raha tha," said an old woman. She said he was impressive, and behaved as if he was one among them.

After the dance, the President walked out of the mansion, ignoring his limousine. He stepped into a group of Rajasthan policemen and shook hands with them. In a brown trousers and an off white bush shirt, Clinton walked into the edge of the road, where the village crowd burst into applause.

Stretching both his hands to the crowd, bending low to shake the hands of those seated and the children, the President walked by the barricade for almost 500 metres. The crowd was in a frenzy, as the security personnel tried vainly to control the people.

At the end of the road stretch, he put a foot on the sideboard of his limousine and rose in air to wave to people standing further. As the entire village burst into applause and hysterical admiration, the American president, whose name is still a tongue-twister for most of those in Nayala, stepped into his official car.

When he began to depart, the village, where the women have made such a difference -- suddenly noticed that the limousine of their unforgettable guest was being driven by a woman.

CLINTON VISITS INDIA:The complete coverage

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