The NDA government last week was forced to cancel a parliamentary delegation to South Africa at the eleventh hour after some MPs allegedly expressed fears of Ebola virus infection.
Official sources told HT that more than three of the 12 MPs, who were part of the contingent, were scared of the Ebola virus and one even pulled out of the trip, jeopardizing the government’s goodwill mission and embarrassing India’s foreign policy establishment.
The cancellation also casts a shadow over India’s participation in an international parliamentary meet in Cameroon next month.
The Ebola hemorrhagic fever has killed almost 1,500 people and infected more than 2,600 in the last six months, mostly in the west-African nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. South Africa and its neighbouring countries have not reported any cases so far.
The Indian delegation had finalised meetings with South African President Jacob Zuma and Speaker Baleka Mbete, among others. “Everything got cancelled at the last moment, even after getting clearances from the PMO and the external affairs ministry,” said an official.
Officials added that some other MPs were apprehensive and asked parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu – who was to lead the delegation -- to not take them anywhere in Africa. On August 19, Naidu wrote to MPs, informing them that the tour had been cancelled.
The MPs, however, denied that the Ebola scare was responsible for the cancellations. Trinamool Congress’ Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, who pulled out of the trip, told HT, “Initially I had agreed to go but had to cancel it later.”
But other parliamentarians said a variety of different factors led them to pull out of the trip. BJP’s Poonam Mahajan said, “I initially gave my passport details. But my president told me to concentrate on Maharashtra as it is going to the polls soon.”
South African officials seemed skeptical of the explanation. “I believe the decision may have been spurred by an incident where two people were picked up and quarantined on suspicion that they were carrying the Ebola virus. But both of them tested negative,” said Shri Pillay, first secretary at the South African high commission.
Pillay said that while all incoming passengers are screened for the virus in South Africa, it was “disappointing that such a high-profile delegation cancelled their visit”. “We look forward to hosting them later,” he added.
The 12-member team had representatives from the Congress, BJP, Trinamool, NCP, BJD, Shiv Sena and the CPI(M). The tour -- scheduled from 25 August to 3 September -- was tipped to be the first parliamentary goodwill visit of the year and the first such Indian mission to South Africa after the death of Nelson Mandela.