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No two ways, MEA culpa

Now that President Pratibha Patil is back after her controversial tour of Latin American countries, the top officers must be nailed for the unprecedented goof-ups during the trip, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2008 04:20 IST
Between Us | Pankaj Vohra

Now that President Pratibha Patil is back in India after her controversial tour of three Latin American countries, the government will hopefully institute a high-powered inquiry panel to ascertain the real reasons behind what happened in Brasilia and Mexico City. The unprecedented goof-ups at these two places, which were insulting to the Indian State and people, happened because there was no coordination between the President’s Secretariat and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

These unpardonable incidents during Patil’s first official foreign tour should not be dismissed casually as has become a habit with the government. The government must ensure that appropriate action is initiated against IAS and IFS officials who were in-charge of the proceedings. No purpose will be served if junior officers are hauled up. Officers responsible for this should not be allowed to go scot-free because incidents like these adversely impact India’s links with friendly countries like Brazil and Mexico. No doubt an attempt would be made to hush up the matter or hold a secret inquiry so that some lame excuses could be given once the matter is raised in Parliament. Our bureaucrats have become experts at misleading our politicians and the vagueness with which certain important queries are addressed indicates a severe lack of seriousness on such vital matters.

The electronic media highlighted the two incidents — poor attendance during Patil’s address in the Brazilian Senate and the cancellation of her address to the joint Houses of Parliament in Mexico City — and tried to project these as an insult to Patil. The fact, however, is that Patil is the President of India and its primary constitutional authority. Therefore, any insult to her is an insult to the august office she holds and also to the Indian people.

The silver lining, however, is that there is no dearth of warmth and affection among the people of India, Brazil and Mexico. The Brazilian soccer stars and sportspersons and politicians like President Lula are held in high esteem here. Since India doesn’t have a world-class football team, most Indians end up backing the yellow shirts and are in awe of their immense talent. Brazil’s music and dance also go down very well with us. Similarly, the Mexicans also strike a chord somewhere. Their exciting food and rich tradition of music and dance have many takers here. Mexico is seen as a developing country trying to grapple with the challenges of the 21st century.

Therefore, one did not expect that the Indian President would be treated so shabbily in these two countries. Obviously, there must have been some lack of effort on part of the MEA during the visit. The President’s Secretariat took things for granted and did not put in enough effort to make the trip successful. The blame-game must have started now and both the MEA and the President’s Secretariat must be trying to put the responsibility on each other. The truth will come out only when the political class takes up the matter seriously.

The bureaucratic answer to the faux pas in Brasilia would be that all the top parties were represented and all the important functionaries were there at a meeting, never mind that only 15 out of the 81 members of the Senate were present. But this answer does not explain why the attendance of the rest was not ensured. As per protocol, all members must be present during an official visit; there is no choice. The speech is a formality, the attendance of Senators is a celebration of the friendship between two countries. The President is the primary representative of India and there is no way she can be treated like this. There are lessons to be learnt from these incidents: it is not only why this happened but also why this should not happen again and the ways and means of preventing it. No Indian can take such an insult lying down and those who were critical of Patil as a presidential candidate must now realise that she is the President and the first citizen of this country.

The media have to see these things in proper perspective. Some TV channels, especially those who reported the twin fiascos, also covered the foreign tour of former President Abdul Kalam and termed it as successful. Kalam is an eminent scientist and former President and his visit should not be juxtaposed with Patil’s in order to show her in a poor light. It is not Patil’s fault that there were goof-ups during her visit; her Secretariat and MEA were responsible for it.

There is no need to pit one against the other. A section of the media continues to call Kalam the ‘People’s President’. With no disrespect to Kalam, even Patil is the ‘People’s President’ since she has been duly elected by the people of this country and is the face of India.

Some of our political parties and politicians too should be blamed for this kind of attitude since they have been busy trying to undermine the sanctity of the country’s top offices. First, it was the office of the PM. Many called Manmohan Singh the ‘weakest PM’ and suggested that he should be replaced. Now it is the President. We need to understand that foreign countries watch these developments. The President is above politics and has to be treated with due reverence.

Finally, the Centre has to come out with answers on why the President’s trip was full of unprecedented goof-ups; second, some responsibility must be pinned on erring IFS and IAS officers; third, MPs who constitute the electoral college of the President must take up the matter politically; and finally, such an embarrassment to the nation and its people must never happen again. Between us.