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Mr Chidambaram takes a train to Washington

By P Rajendran
September 10, 2009 04:34 IST
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The man in a black suit stood leaning over in inquiry as an official spoke confidentially to him. Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's home minister, nodded in response and looked up at the crowd bemusedly. They looked back at him, with a similar air of bafflement. Who on earth was this coming in their way during the peak hours?

In fact, the minister, blue folder and cell phone in hand, had landed in New York to learn what novel security measures the New York Police Department, Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were taking to deal with possible terrorist attacks. In the wake of the terror attacks on Mumbai in November last year, the NYPD had incorporated changes to deal with similar attacks from the sea and on soft targets.

From the entrance of the Amtrak platforms 5 and 6 at New York's Penn station, where they were standing, Chidambaram and his entourage wound their way up the stairs, past a team that sniffed diligently at passers-by. They continued discussions with the officer in a secluded office.

The team headed off again, making its way to the part of the station beneath 34th Street -- the street best known for its celebrated tenant, the Empire State Building -- where Chidambaram watched how people are screened, then through swelling crowds to the Long Island Rail Road segment, where the minister first dived into the office of the Metropolitan Transit Authority police, while the police quizzed one trailing reporter.

"You're making us nervous, you know," said MTA Fire Safety Chief Guy Hearn, apologetically.

A few minutes later, the minister could be seen in a passage about 100 feet down, nodding as an official instructed him on the uses of a boxy unit topped by what appeared to be a chimney. One could read the instruction, white on red, which started off tersely with 'Do Not Sit...'

"God knows why they were looking at the air monitor," said a passenger who happened to be alongside during the conversation.

Chidambaram's team consisted mostly of men in dour suits who trailed him, and one woman in a bright sari, reliably identified as Gayatri Kumar, the joint secretary (Americas) in the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi. Also identifiable in the group was Dr A M Gondane, deputy consul general at the Indian consulate in New York.

It was getting to be time that Chidambaram took the train to Washington, DC, and so the swarm of officials buzzed along past shops where people yodeled out, "Free sample, free sample."

Waiting for them at the entrance of platforms 5 and 6 were Hardeep Singh Puri, India's permanent representative to the United Nations, and Prabhu Dayal, India's consul general in New York. Dayal was just making a point to Puri when Chidambaram came over the horizon, up from the Long Island Rail Road concourses.

With remarkable alacrity, Chidambaram's expanded group swept into the private lounge, while security personnel shooed away the clustering Indian media with less than veiled threats of arrest.

Chidambaram's four-day trip, his first to the United States as home minister, is intended to address ways for the US and India to jointly address the problem of terrorism. Among other things, he is also expected to put forth India's concern about Pakistan's refusal to act against those behind the attacks in Mumbai.

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P Rajendran in New York