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Sunday, 6 January, 2002, 20:37 GMT
Blair handles diplomacy hazards
Tony and Cherie Blair
Tony and Cherie received gifts from local people in India
Nyta Mann

The routine hazards of the diplomatic trail are well known.

By the time the more serious business of Tony Blair's South Asia shuttle got under way on Sunday evening, the prime minister had a taste of them all.

First there was the turban incident.

On his arrival in Bangladesh on the first leg of his tour, Mr Blair was greeted with the flamboyance characteristic of the Asian sub-continent when high-powered dignitaries come to call.

In the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, this included the gift - made in full range of watching photographers - of a lovingly decorated traditional turban, reverently placed in Mr Blair's hands.

Headwear wary

Of course he didn't put it on, despite the proud donor's urging.

New Labour's leader did not get where he is by allowing pictures of himself in exotic headwear to appear on the front pages of newspapers back home.

Having safely negotiated that near-miss, his next stop was Bangalore, India, where the inflamed Kashmir crisis dominates the agenda.

Even before the current escalation of tension between Pakistan and India over the province, Mr Blair knew only too well how sensitive the subject is here.

Several of his own ministers have in the past discovered that even the apparently blandest statement on the issue has landed them in hot water with one side or another of the conflict.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair refused to try on a turban
So it was unfortunate that he flew in to a mini-row set off by himself when, in the short space of time between arriving in India and leaving the plane that brought him there, he said that "of course Pakistan has a very strong position on Kashmir".

A statement of the obvious, perhaps, but enough for the Indian press and opposition politicians to seize on, misinterpret as a statement that Pakistan had a "strong case" and to cast a shadow over Mr Blair's aim of acting as a "calming influence" and his keynote speech proclaiming Britain's post-imperial status as a pivotal player and force for good in the world.

Tennis missed match

The following morning saw the tennis match no-show.

Indian authorities had awarded Mr Blair's visit the highest security rating possible, "Z+".

What this meant in real terms was heavy duty gridlock and disruption across much of the city as swathes of roads were closed off to allow free passage anywhere the prime ministerial convoy might approach.

Mr Blair had a tennis match arranged with fellow keen player S M Krishna, chief minister of Karnataka - the state of which Bangalore is the capital.

Mr Krishna was there. So were the cameras from Indian newspapers. But Mr Blair was not.

Alarmed at the inconvenience his trip was causing to thousands of ordinary Bangalorians, the prime minister cancelled his tennis date across town - but not in time to prevent Mr Krishna being photographed practicing his service, repeatedly checking his watch as he wondered where his tennis partner could be, and finally sitting down to the post-match breakfast all on his own.

Question dodging

Pictures detailing each stage, from anticipation to crestfallen disappointment, appeared in the following day's papers.

In New Delhi, with the more serious part of Mr Blair's tour now under way, came the don't-answer-that-question episode.

At the press conference held with his Indian counterpart, Atal Vajpayee, after their talks, one of the mere three questions permitted to British journalists accompanying the prime minister was put to Mr Vajpayee.

Was Mr Blair playing a pivotal role in the present crisis?

It was one of those questions prime ministers on tours overseas are trained to recognise as designed to trap foreign leaders into causing a flurry of embarrassing headlines back home.

Before Mr Vajpayee could draw breath Mr Blair, trained as the best of them, butted in to warn him off even attempting an answer, recommending he avoid the "mischief" caused by the UK press.

Another near-miss, his Downing Street officials might well have later congratulated him.

The BBC's Nick Robinson
"So far, Tony Blair has nothing to show"
See also:

06 Jan 02 | South Asia
Blair backs anti-terror pledge
04 Jan 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Blair enters the maelstrom
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