ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Eight days, six countries, and a rock star welcome. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making her first visit to Asia since moving into her offices at the State Department. And so far, the trip is the stuff of front-page photos and video headlines here.
After nearly 16-and-a-half hours of flying time, Rice stepped off the Boeing 757 after sunset on Tuesday to a platform filled with still and video photographers in New Delhi, the American ambassador to India waiting on the tarmac to show her to her car, and various local dignitaries eager to shake her hand.
When asked by a visiting reporter why all the fuss, given that it was already after dinner and dark to boot, a local embassy staffer said, “Well, it’s the only picture the Indian media will get of Rice today!” And indeed, Rice’s descent from the jet made the front pages, including the Wednesday's editon of the Times of India.
Flash bulbs popping
The same reaction met Rice at her first press conference, alongside Minister of External Affairs Natwar Singh. Easily 100 local newspaper, radio and television journalists filled a grand colonial-era hall to hear Rice and Singh discuss their shared military, political and economic priorities.
While the overall reaction from the Indian press was one of frenzied photo snapping, with shutterbugs stumbling over each other to capture the moment, one reporter challenged Rice to declare her support for giving India a permanent seat on the Security Council.
Rice replied, “We’re at the beginning of discussions, about U.N. reform including, of course, U.N. Security Council reform….We have agreed to stay in touch with India and with others about how those discussions are going.”
Since reporters didn’t get to ask follow-up questions, it’s not clear if that was enough to satisfy the magazine writer.
Rice’s reception during a tour of the 16th century Humayan’s Tomb, under a clear, hot sky in central New Delhi, didn’t draw as many cameras and scribes, but those who showed up braved the midday sun to watch the secretary and a guide cross the manicured grounds and walk about the site.
It was hard to hear Rice’s comments to the guide about the architecture, but she was seen looking at different features of the site — described as a model of Islamic paradise gardens — and making frequent comments to the young woman.
Rice and the guide finally came down the steep flight of stairs and crossed a broad expanse of grass and clay-lined canals to pose for the small group of local press, who weren’t allowed to join the U.S. press and Rice’s staff for the tour.
Back to work
Then, it was back to work — a working lunch with Singh. According to a senior State Department official, the conversation focused on three issues: economic ties, security concerns and energy policy.
Fighter jet sales to India also came up during the discussion, but the official insisted it was a discussion, and not a prelude to an announcement of a deal.
The official promised similar discussions would come up during Rice’s second stop on her tour — Pakistan, India’s longtime rival, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, and a country trying to democratize all at the same time.
Rosiland Jordan is an NBC News Correspondent. She is currently traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Asia.