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Thursday, 30 May, 2002, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Delhi's mix of colour and chaos
Mr Straw held talks with Jaswant Singh
Mr Straw held talks with Jaswant Singh

As they sat awkwardly posing for photographs in a room in the heavily guarded Indian prime minister's house at 7, Racecourse Road, Jack Straw exchanged a joke with his opposite number.

"We foreign ministers have got to stick together," he quipped, provoking a gruff guffaw from Jaswant Singh, the Minister for External Affairs.

India greets the newcomer with a blaze of colour, a certain amount of chaos and an eagerness to hear your views

Between the two men, looking frail and slightly uneasy, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's Prime Minister, watched two dozen cameramen barging each other in the search for the best shot.

After pushing and shoving for a couple of minutes, the television crews were brusquely bundled out of the office and went back to an adjoining room to pick up the rest of their equipment.

And so, sweating in the heat and angry about the short photocall, the cameramen found themselves standing in the wood-panelled cabinet room where sooner or later India's leaders will make a decision with massive implications for the entire world.

Storm damage

Just as at the frenzied photocall, India greets the newcomer with a blaze of colour, a certain amount of chaos and an eagerness to hear your views on anything and everything.

Within a couple of hours of being in New Delhi, I had a range of views on who should lead England's attack against Sweden on Sunday and whether England cricketer Darren Gough is a better bowler than Australia's Glenn McGrath.

The city was in a state of particular chaos on Wednesday because of a massive storm which had felled trees and left many roads flooded.

The colour outshines the chaos in Delhi
And the newspapers were full of stories questioning why the city is never prepared for such events, rather like the reports which appear in the UK when people are flooded out of their homes.

On the busy roads, traffic veered erratically to avoid the huge brown puddles, the men on bikes carrying piles of tree branches and the occasional cow.

Hawks circled through the air over the smog. A monkey settled down for a nap on my hotel window ledge.

But if the chaos is one thing, it is the colour of Delhi which is most enticing.

Stunning sights

In the elegant Lutyens-designed Hyderabad House where Mr Straw and Mr Singh held talks, the red rose petals floating in water sent a sweet scent into the air as two silver peacocks glimmered on a mantelpiece.

At the stunning Humayun tomb, a UNESCO world heritage site, there was almost complete silence but for the crows in the trees.

Sachin Tendulkar still excites great interest
Sporting questions loom large on Delhi's streets
It is known as "the Red Taj" and the crimson marble offers a stunning sight.

In the prime minister's house, a vase of yellow lilies sat next to a bust of Mahatma Gandhi, while pink lilies offered a flash of colour in contrast with the dark business suits of the UK foreign office delegation.

In the distance was the sound of peacocks squawking in the Mr Vajpayee's garden.

The prime minister's house is actually an entire street of bungalows converted by Rajiv Gandhi into a home and government complex.

Security checks

And despite the beauty of the gardens, there is also the unease which comes with increased security following the attack by Kashmiri militants on a New Delhi parliament building last year.

The intense security at a security checkpoint created out of a converted toilet block, with journalists frisked after passing through doors still marked as the 'gents' or 'ladies', came with a nervy smile.

Security is tight throughout the city and just as in Islamabad, a modern capital city in contrast to the Lutyens-designed Delhi which became capital under the British, there is massive concern on the streets about the prospect of war.

India's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Vajpayee faces momentous decisions
The newspapers have the same urgent pre-war feel as those in Pakistan, with the calmer analysis - some of it offering glimpses of hope - confined to the inside pages.

What is lacking anywhere is a pathway to a peaceful settlement of the dispute over Kashmir beyond the possibility of Indian and Pakistani leaders holding separate meetings with the Russians.

Jack Straw repeatedly said he came to the region without the blueprint of a peace plan in his back pocket. It was first and foremost a fact-finding mission.

And the way he repeated that the tensions amounted to a bilateral dispute became almost as tedious as hearing about the five economic tests for UK membership of the euro single currency.

Cricket questions

On the streets, most people were more interested in my opinions about the prospect of war than voicing their own views, but that they have grave fears was plain to see.

They were keener to talk about cricket and the World Cup, Tendulkar and Beckham, Laxman and Zidane.

And in case you are wondering, the view on the streets of New Delhi is that England's attack on Sunday should be Owen and Sheringham.

As for whether they think war is likely, they are simply too frightened to say.

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See also:

29 May 02 | South Asia
28 May 02 | UK Politics
29 May 02 | South Asia
28 May 02 | South Asia
27 May 02 | South Asia
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