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It's not a travel bug

A president visits a foreign country only at the request of the government.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2012 22:19 IST
Vivek Katju

President Pratibha Patil will travel to South Africa and Seychelles on important State visits, starting April 29. But it is sad that these significant visits will take place in the midst of reports that the government has spent huge amounts on her earlier foreign visits and that they were unnecessary. But the truth is that such visits are a vital part of the country's foreign policy.

A president does not visit foreign countries because he/she wants to; he/she does so at the request of the government and a foreign country is selected only after extensive consultations within the ministry of external affairs (MEA). The MEA's views are then sent to the Prime Minister's Office for examination and then sent for the prime minister's approval. The choice is determined by the need to strengthen emerging relationships, invigorate old friendships, renew neglected bonds and lobby discreetly for specific commercial, economic and security interests. Any excessive focus on a single continent is usually avoided.

All these have reflected in the visits of the current president. She has travelled to European, Latin American and Asian, including Arab, countries. Her forthcoming visit to Seychelles is timely since this friendly island country will be crucial for our security interests in the Indian Ocean region. The last presidential visit to Seychelles was in 1983 and a PM's only visit was even earlier.

At the heart of a presidential visit are interactions with her counterpart and other senior leaders. The MEA prepares briefing papers for these meetings and a secretary also briefs the president.

I had the privilege of briefing the present president many times and always found that she had read the background papers. She also took notes during such briefings and asked questions about the countries concerned, the nature of our relationships with them, our objectives and diplomatic efforts. During the meetings in those countries, she was always focuses and articulated India's positions with clarity. She also had the ability to put her interlocutor at ease and she pursued India's interests with determination.

One case is worth recalling. It is no secret that Mauritius is reluctant to accept any change to the India-Mauritius Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement. Many rounds of meetings have failed to yield any result. For a few years, they were even unwilling to hold talks on the issue. When the president visited Mauritius, she made it clear to them that talks must resume so that our concerns could be addressed. Today, talks between the two nations on the issue have started again.

There is also another view that leaders must avoid wasteful expenditure. The question: should the government spend so much money on the foreign trips of the president, vice-president and the prime minister? The question is relevant since a major part of the expenditure on their visits is on air travel. But isn't it obvious that they cannot travel by commercial aircraft? The government must acquire aircraft with security features for the leaders. This might make travel more expensive but the demands of security must be addressed suitably.

The next question is: should family members go on a presidential visit? Or for that matter, accompany a PM on foreign visits? The president and the PM have followed what their predecessors had done: most of them took family members on official visits. This is also the international practice. This is a small matter and should be best left to the leaders themselves.

There is no doubt that we must constantly evaluate our public representatives but criticism should never be motivated or ill-informed.

Vivek Katju is former secretary in the ministry of external affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal.