How much should the President of India or, for that matter, the Prime Minister of the country, travel during his or her term of office? Once every month? Once every term? And this, at a time, when one can get in touch with anybody just by the touch of a button? But then it maybe argued that heads of State or Government don’t travel to have a good time but to conduct Government business. But then the question may arise: What are Ambassadors for? Or Ministers of External Affairs? Such questions have recently occurred following Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Russia and China.
It is asked: What has he gained? What has India gained? In the past former President Pratibha Patil came in for loud criticism for spending a whopping Rs 205 crore on her foreign visits, surpassing the record of all her predecessors. Since assuming office as the country’s first woman President, Patil had undertaken 12 foreign trips covering 22 countries across four continents. The countries she visited include Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Bhutan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Spain, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, the United Kingdom, Cyprus, China, Laos and Cambodia. Questions were asked, What had India to do with Chile, for instance? Why did she have to go there?
Her immediate predecessor, Dr APJ Kalam undertook seven trips to seventeen countries for 47 days during his 5-year term. Before that KR Narayan covered ten countries in six trips spending 46 days of his tenure out of the country. And earlier still S. Sharma travelled to 16 countries in for trips for 47 days. Were those trips worth the money spent?
As the first Prime Minister of India, if Jawaharlal Nehru had travelled a few times it was on his Non-Aligned Mission. He had a specific vision in mind. In the early years, besides, he usually travelled by regular Air India flights, the front part of the plane reserved for him and his officials. Now we learn that Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in his nine years had undertook 67 travels since 2004 and the country has had to bear the cost of Rs 642.5 crore, something of a record. The maximum amount of Rs 26.94 crore was spent during his 7-days long visit to Mexico and Brazil in 2012 to attend the G20 Summit and the Rio+20 Summit respectively. Of course, it is not that he travelled alone. He had to be accompanied by a posse of concerned officials and these days media persons also get a free trip which they possibly cannot deny. And it is just as well that they are invited. It would be part of their education in international affairs! There has been some quiet behind-one’s-back criticism of our leaders for spending too much on travelling, as always, with their spouses, children and even grand grandchildren. It is right to take one’s spouse alone, when one is on an official visit? But what would be wrong with it? It only shows that we are human. Besides, a spouse can make friends with wives of local leaders and, in their small way, practice diplomacy. Nehru was invariably accompanied by Indira Gandhi, but the latter, in her time, travelled all alone. – and wisely. Her visits abroad often made history, whether to Moscow or to any other international capital, especially Washington, where she was hated. The charges are now made that after after eighty sojourns abroad in nine years, Dr Manmohan Singh has achieved nothing. To make the charge more shocking the point is further made that he has been away from India one in every ten days. Half his visits were to the more relevant countries like Russia, China and Britain and the United States but two things are relevant to remember: one is that the Prime Minister has to be present at the annual opening session of the UN General Assembly. That has almost become a tradition. Two, should every visit abroad necessarily have to be a “success?”. And what exactly is “success” or “achievement”?
A visit abroad is made precisely because an issue has to be settled and that cannot, normally, be done through diplomatic procedures involving top officials. Expecting ‘success’ all the time is over-expectation. For example, after nearly a decade of lobbying, India has not been successful in getting a Permanent seat in the UN Security Council. India’s biggest and most vicious opponent is China, a nation with no sense of gratitude. Then there is another relevant question: Presidents and Prime Ministers of how many countries make foreign visits? Of course, the argument can be made that one cannot compare any other country with India which is unique in its own way.
Besides, another relevant question is whether our leaders go abroad invited or uninvited. One can’t just push oneself on any country’s goodwill and sociableness. We need to get an invitation from the host country. Do we get such invitations on a regular basis? This is not revealed.