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Diary: Notes from the President's second overseas visit

Last updated on: March 14, 2013 17:14 IST

Diary: Notes from the President's second overseas visit

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy in Mumbai

Rediff.com's Saisuresh Sivaswamy travelled with President Pranab Mukherjee on his official visit to Mauritius. These are his impressions. 

As noted in January, flying with VIPs like the President, vice-President, prime minister etc is both onerous and fun.

Onerous only because the schedule is drawn keeping the affairs of state in mind, so first-time visitors from the media can find the whole thing very confusing. For veteran travellers, which yours truly is inching towards becoming, the schedule is more ho-hum. You know you will be asked to wake up at insane hours to give out your check-in baggage, the press briefing can happen at any hour, and shopping is not the priority.

Fun because within the constraints, both the host, the ministry of external affairs, and the national carrier, which rolls out its Air India One for such occasions, go the extra mile to make travel comfortable, indulge your whims (within reasonable limits, of course), and generally tend to keep you well-fed and aquified.

Flying with President Pranab Mukherjee to Mauritius, only his second overseas visit since becoming First Citizen eight months ago, was all of it and then some. For many media veterans on the trip he remains Dada in private conversation, thanks to their interactions with him over the years in various capacities (his, not theirs). So Pranabda is well aware of journalists' body clock and other circadian rhythms. Within minutes of Air India One taking off from Palam air force base on Monday, he emerged from his suite to press flesh with the journalists. No two journalists can agree on anything, but on this there was rare unanimity among the tribe: No VIP has come out so soon after takeoff to meet the press corps.

And when one of us asked 'Dada' for a briefing onboard as he went around greeting everyone, the President declined politely, and added with a twinkle in his eye: "Enjoy!" We sure did, Your Excellency!

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Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com
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The minister in waiting...

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Minister of State for Home RPN Singh was the chosen minister-in-waiting. A rare breed of politicians in that he is equally at home with the Bhojpuri-speaking subalterns of his constituency and the argumentative, English-speaking media. Trading banter with the press, many of whom he has known over a period of time, Singh was grilled intensely on the Narendra Modi 'phenomenon', the 2014 elections, Rahul Gandhi, who will be the next prime minister, the AgustaWestland scam, corruption, Anna Hazare and more.

If you pay heed to the vitriol on social media you can be forgiven for thinking we are an unscrupulous tribe, but virtual reality, alas, is just that, virtual (and you will realise it in 2014). We do follow a code of ethics, one of which is that what is said in off-the-record conversations remains off the record, alas. But trust us when we say it was a most interesting engagement with a minister of who we are sure to see more in the days to come.

...And other companions

Raghuvansh Prasad Singh of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (Bihar), Kusum Rai of the Bharatiya Janata Party (UP) and Satyavrat Chaturvedi from the Congress (Madhya Pradesh) were part of the delegation accompanying the President to Mauritius.

Given the fact that PIOs form a majority of Mauritius's population, and within that those from UP and Bihar are significant in number, their choice made sense.

Perhaps because the language of the media team was loaded against them, or maybe unwilling to face uncomfortable questions, Singh and Rai chose to keep to themselves, not making a presence before the media although they were part of every official interaction with the Mauritian side. Yadav was spotted emerging from Clarisse House on Tuesday after the President's meeting with the Mauritian prime minister, and when I greeted him in Hindi and asked him to chat with us, he launched into his response in Bhojpuri. It was obvious we won't be seeing much of him.

The closest I could get to Ms Rai was after the President was conferred the honorary doctorate at the University of Mauritius on Wednesday. As everyone rushed to beat the traffic and make for the next official appointment, she was heard asking to use the bathroom. However, she had to put it off for the next venue.

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Image: Minister of state for home RPN Singh
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com
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How we beat the traffic every time

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The carcade for visiting VIPs is always impressive. There is the official delegation accompanying the VIP, and joining them is the receiving delegation. Their smooth commute is ensured with deft traffic arrangements, and the media van is usually able to make it in time to its hotel as it tags along at the end of the carcade. But that is only from the airport; other times, since the media makes it on its own, the van is subject to the vagaries of traffic, although the cops do wave us on.

But Mauritius had done one better. A motorcycle-riding cop was assigned to the media as outrider, and he ensured that the media van had a smooth ride. In fact, at least one journalist thought we were always part of the President's carcade on seeing the outrider.

Time is of essence

You know Mauritius, despite its location in the African region, is part of the South Asian circle of influence when you hear Indian languages, versions of it, ok, being spoke around you and listen to dedicated Bollywood FM stations.

But you know it has broken out of the South Asian mindset when you attend official events and notice the punctuality, an element that is so missing in our lives. And nowhere was this clockwork-like precision more evident than at the National Day festivities at Anjalay stadium on Tuesday evening. The event kept to the minute-by-minute schedule given out, with only one deviation. The chief guest was just a wee bit behind time.

The evening was no less predictable because of the locked-in schedule. In fact there are always unforeseen incidents that tend to happen. Like during a marchpast by the police, one of the female cops fainted and collapsed. She was quickly carried away to safety and medical attention while the show went on.

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Image: The Anjalay stadium in Mauritius where the National Day festivities were held
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com
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The singer, not the songs

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Personally, I quite like Shibani Kashyap's songs, even though I am not very current with her song list. But nothing prepared me for the criticism among the media for choosing her to belt out her songs at the Mauritian National Day celebrations.

Part of it could be that political journalists are uni-dimensional. They are very good at what they cover, and may even have a passing fancy for Bollywood films but that's it. Also, for serious journos, showing too much affinity for something soft as Bollywood could be the kiss of death among peers. As Zahid Khan says in Main Hoon Na, it's all about the image, you see.

As I was saying, the ICCR could have its own reason for choosing Shibani Kashyap, MEA officials had nothing to say about it, but wag couldn't resist this: Thanks to ICCR, Pranabda got to know there was a singer called Shibani Kashyap in India. Miaow!

Flight of fancy

As one travels on VIP visits abroad, one gets to know the aircraft layout as well as the accompanying crew quite well. So one knows which are preferred seats that have a good access and view when there is an onboard briefing, what to expect in terms of service (the best, naturally!), and there is tremendous backslapping and bonhomie on display with the crew. Flight attendant names are remembered, the senior Air India staff make it a point to inquire after everyone's comfort, and, needless to say, the F&B is top-notch.

It struck me while tucking into Bagara Baingan and vegetable biryani at supper on Wednesday night, that the menu has never been repeated on my few travels on Air India One.

And with the President himself urging the media-men and women to 'enjoy', the crew makes sure we do. The oblations are constant, lasting as late as the plane starts its descent. So it is with a twinge that one takes leave of the Air Indians.

There was a revelation this time. Suddenly we saw the flight attendants rushing to the VIP area. Uh-oh, has there been an emergency of some kind? No need to worry, it was only for the customary photograph with the Head of State. Facebook, anyone?

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Image: Some of the journalists onboard AirIndia One, with the VIPs
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com
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Leaders of tomorrow

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The conferment of the degree of doctor of civil law on President Mukherjee on Wednesday morning was a brief affair, lasting perhaps not more than 20 minutes. The President trooped in, was greeted by his Mauritian counterpart and the prime minister, the chancellor of the university read out his welcome speech, the pro vice chancellor paid tribute to Mukherjee, the degree was conferred on him, he made a thanks-giving speech, and it was all over.

The convocation hall was filled to the rafters, with academics, prominent citizens and students.

As the delegation rushed to make it for the next engagements, Prime Minister Naveenchandra Ramgoolam stayed on, and over tea and snacks engaged with the students who thronged him. There was a minimal security cordon but there was no fear of security threat or things threatening to go out of hand. It was all so informal and, may we say, refreshing.

Now, how often have you seen that happen in India? If youth are a nation's tomorrow, isn't this how it should be -- that they should be able to freely interact with the country's top leadership and make their views known?

Remembering the past, Mauritius style

No visit to Mauritius can be complete without a visit to Aapravasi Ghat, the spot where over years some 450,000 indentured labourers from India were brought to the country by the British to work on its sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery in the 18th century. They landed here, stayed in minimal conditions for a couple of days, before being bundled out to the plantations cheap labour.

Although the labourers came from many countries, the offspring of indentured labour from India forms the bulk of the country's population. But strangely, while the political establishment is PIO in nature, Indian languages are only optional in the education system which leans to English and French.

Mauritius has a keen sense of its history, and doesn't want its past to be erased from the collective memory. Thus, Aapravasi Ghat has been restored and maintained in its original condition, and is today a world heritage site.

Visiting it cannot but bring a lump in your throat as you try and imagine what our people must have gone through. As Sunanda, our young interlocutor tells us, they sacrificed their lives so that their future generations could have a better life, which should never be forgotten.

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Image: Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam with students
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com
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An evening to remember

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The ministry of external affairs, which serves as the host for the visiting media, does its best to ensure that the fourth estate does not goes back with grievances, so it virtually bends over backwards to smoothen things out for us.

Time permitting, shopping and sight-seeing tours are squeezed into the cramped schedule, top-class facilities are provided in the media centre, and invariably an evening of cultural performances is also thrown in.

After being across two sides of the fence in their interactions till then, this is the chance for the media as well as the MEA and the rest of the delegation to loosen up, kick up their feet and relax, with the aid of suitable sundowners.

Thus it was that Tuesday night saw a bevy of lissom lasses perform first to live African music, and then show off some mean belly-dancing moves.

From what we could tell from of the morning-after, the overall effect of the beachside setting, excellent balmy weather, great food and the dance was most salutary. Most agreed that their doctors would approve.

Faces in the crowd

Yes, there are some faces that are well-known and you recognise them immediately on spotting them. But there are many in the delegation that one may have heard of, known by name, but have no idea it could be the person next to you.

Like when I was waiting in the departure area of the Palam air fore base on Monday morning, there was this distinguished-looking person sitting next to me. Clearly he was too distinguished looking to be a journalist, we are workmen, could it be some MEA maven? Just then he opened his bag to take out something, and I caught his name tag: Dr P R Goyal. And the penny dropped. It was the President's personal physician.

The good doctor confirmed that yes, it was indeed him, and went on to talk about his long association with the First Citizen.

The second such serendipity happened on Tuesday evening at the afore-mentioned beach party. The kebab station of the buffet delicious looking specimens and as I inquired if they were of beef, the gentlemen next to me said no, it was chicken. Both of us looked at each other and nodded in agreement, beef kebabs are better, but what to do...

Then he asked me if I was part of the official delegation, and I said yes, what about him. So was he, he said, and we exchanged cards and he walked away. As I looked at his card, I realised he was K V Bhagirath, chairman of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and would have made for a fascinating conversation. But alas, the evening had got to me by then, and that was the last I saw of him.

And the last was even more egregious. As we emerged from Clarisse House, the Mauritian prime minister's official residence, after the two leaders had met, in the throng was an Indian lady walking behind someone. On impulse I greeted her with a Namaste, and she responded. As I moved away, I heard her talking in Bengali and the paisa dropped. It was Sushmita, the President's daughter! Before I could turn to her, she had been whisked away in the arms of the security phalanx. Oh fish!


Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com
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