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One unusual Chief Guest!

January 28, 2008

Rashtrapati Bhavan, one can safely assume, hasn't seen someone like Sarko in sometime.

For one, the 52-year-old French president must be the youngest chief guest at Republic Day in a long time; last year's guest Vladmir Putin was three years older. For another, he brought a Gallic joie de vivre that enhanced the otherwise somber drama of manners enacted at the Presidential At Home on Republic Day.

His decision to visit the Taj Mahal -- no doubt an item on his itinerary decided before our Victorian mandarins nixed girlfriend Carla Bruni's presence in his official entourage -- soon after the Republic Day parade, delayed the At Home by an unprecedented 25 minutes. Usually, the President, along with the vice-president, prime minister and other Indian bigwigs, greets the visiting head of State within the innards of Rashtrapati Bhavan before they emerge one at a time on the lawns where the tea party is held.

Nicolas Sarkozy's air dash to view the greatest monument built to love, alas without his amour alongside, ensured that that ritual was abandoned this time. President Patil's secretary Christy D'Souza, who must have consulted his watch at least 20 times, finally thought it prudent to ask the vice-president, prime minister and United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi to join other guests on the lawn so that some semblance of time -- the President arrives exactly at 1600 hours and departs 45 minutes later -- was maintained. Interestingly, D'Souza also thought it fit to brief the waiting guests that the French leader had landed from Agra and was expected seven minutes hence.

When he arrived, Sarko looked a bit bewildered by the setting -- the buglers on the ramparts of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the President's Bodyguard tall and resplendent in their uniforms and with their lances -- as he had, we thought, when the Republic Day parade began that morning.

He is a small man, about Sachin Tendulkar's height, who walks with a slight shuffle. Sarko has a slight resemblance to Sylvester Stallone, but has undeniable charisma, which may account for why Carla, with a long line of conquests that include Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, must find him so irresistible.

After presumably discussing the merits of Shah Jahan's most memorable feat with his Indian hosts for a few minutes and presumably having the strong coffee the French favour rather than Chai, Sarko decided it was time to meet all of us, something no chief guest at an At Home had done before. No sooner had word spread that the French president was doing a walkabout, guests abandoned their samosas, cake and Chai, and dashed across the lawn to shake Sarkozy's hand, get his autograph, and even offer nuggets of advice ("Mr President, please have better relations with India").

How was the Taj Mahal, this reporter asked Sarko, after shaking his hand (he has a strong grip, more reminiscent of tough guy Marseilles than silky Paris). "Fabulous! Fantastique!" the Frenchman exclaimed with appropriate emotion as he borrowed my pen to sign autographs. Was the Taj everything it was made out to be? "Much more," Sarko said; later, he would remember it was my pen and in that slight tilt of the head made so famous in photographs since his election last year, return it to me.

Sarkozy stole the show, one guest declared later. The French leader's five-minute walkabout, before he reluctantly returned to his chair, added undoubted star power to the event. His autograph, reproduced alongside, is an indecipherable scrawl. "It is the sign of a romantic," one star-struck lady pronounced as I wondered if any of his predecessors, the stately De Gaulle, the rather inscrutable Pompidou, the elegant d'Estaings, the wily Mitterand or the smooth Chirac, could have evoked such giddy-headed fervour.

Truly, a leader for our times. South Block would be hard-pressed to come up with an encore next year. Or maybe they will opt for some careful, colourless leader. Very unlike Sarko.

Images: Left, French President Nicolas Sarkozy signs an autograph at the event. Right: Sarko reacts after eating a spicy Indian snack during the Presidential reception. Photographs: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

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