My first meeting with Nelson Mandela was when he visited India after his release from prison in 1990. I happened to be visiting Delhi from Assam and found out that he was to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture at Teen Murti House. I had the good fortune of spending 7-8 minutes talking to him, as he was sitting alone in the front row, waiting for the arrival of the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh so that the function could begin.
My second meeting with him was in South Africa, when I had gone along with Prime Minister Inder Gujral's entourage, as union culture secretary in 1997— the first visit of an Indian Prime Minister after Mandela was sworn-in as President on 10th May, 1994. The courtesy call by Prime Minister Gujral on President Mandela was preceded by a ceremonial guard of honour. Secretary, MEA, V.K. Grover, High Commissioner Gopal Krishna Gandhi and I were ushered into the Presidential living room.
After exchange of pleasantries, President Mandela expressed his unhappiness that neither the President nor the Prime Minister of India had attended his swearing in ceremony. He also mentioned that after his release from prison, India was the first country he had visited. There was visible discomfiture. And then President Mandela went on to talk about the warmth that he had received in India during his visit there.
Seeing the unease of Prime Minister Gujral and sensing an opportunity, I mentioned that I had the privilege of meeting him at Teen Murti House at New Delhi on that occasion. Looking at me, he said that my face was familiar to him. I asked him what he considered as his most memorable public meeting in India. He promptly said it was at Kolkata where he had addressed nearly a million people at the maidan. President Mandela also remembered dancing to the music of a singer who had performed in his honour. I said that the singer, Bhupen Hazarika, was a friend whom I had known for a number of years. This helped change the atmosphere.
The rest of the visit of course went off exceedingly well. In fact, Prime Minister Gujral before being escorted to the waiting car was taken to a huge crowd which had assembled outside the gate. President Mandela introduced Prime Minister Gujral to the people with warmth. Subsequently, Prime Minister Gujral thanked me for my interjection that had earlier helped melt the ice. Later, at a dinner hosted in honour of Prime Minister Gujral, President Mandela persuaded both Prime Minister Gujral and Mrs Gujral to join him and his consort on the dance floor to the glee of the invitees.
Balmiki Prasad Singh is a former Governor of Sikkim
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