‘Non-Resident Prime Minister’

Great Leap Outward?

Bibekananda Ray

In the last 70 years, free India did not have a peregrinating Prime Minister of the scale of the present. On an average twice in a month, he is seen boarding aircraft for visits abroad. What TV channels do not show and the PIBs do not disclose, is the strength of the retinue of officers and media representatives that usually accompany him. Soon after being sworn in as Prime Minister on 31st October 1984, Rajiv Gandhi used to travel so often to countries abroad on various pretexts and errands that the media and the opposition nick-named him 'Non-resident Prime Minister'. Once, he had to be summoned home from Africa on an emergency at home; thereafter, he gave up reckless globe-trotting. The forgotten label has returned to attach to Mr Modi. Since 16th June 2014, his maiden trip, to Bhutan less than a month after swearing-in, he visited 69 countries. His visits are mainly of two main kinds—the State and non-State. State visits are seldom on invitations of visited countries but non-State ones are often are and generally on protocol, like attending and addressing the UN General Assembly or Security Council sessions, BRICS, ASEAN, East Asia, G-20, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summits or annual meetings, ceremonial occasions, funerals etc; sometimes they are combined with State visits. Thus, he made 72 trips to 51 countries over a period of 39 months, i.e., on an average nearly two trips in a month. In reply to a RTI query, the PMO revealed that these global trips cost the nation more than four billion, i.e., 400 crore rupees.

The 37 countries that he visited once are (alphabetically) Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, Fiji, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Netherlands, Pakistan, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the UAE, the UK, Vietnam. The eight countries that he visited twice are Afghanistan, China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan. The three countries that he visited thrice are France, Germany and Russia. The one country he visited five times is the USA.

Of these, State visits were to 47 countries, or their cities, such as (chronologically) Bhutan (16-17 June'14), Brazil (13-16 July'14), Nepal (3-4 Aug'14), Japan twice (30 Aug-03 Sept'14 & 11-12 Nov'16), Washington DC three times (26-30 Sept'14, 6-8 June'16 & 25-26 June'17), Fiji (19 Nov'14), Australia (14-18 Nov'14), Seychelles (10-11 March'15), Mauritius (11-13 March '15), Sri Lanka (13-14 March'15), France (9-12 April15), Germany twice (12-14 April'15 & 29-30 May'17), to Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouverin Canada (14-16 April'15),to Xi'an, Beijing, Shanghai in China (14-16 May'15), to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia (16-17 May'15), South Korea (18-19 May'15), Bangladesh (6-7 June'15), Uzbekistan (6-7 July'15), Kazakhstan (7 July'15), Turkmenistan (10-11 July'15), Kyrgyzstan (12 July'15), Tajikistan (12-13 July'15), UAE (16-17 Aug'15), Ireland (23 Sept'15), Silicon Valley, USA (24-30 Sept'15), U K (12-14 Nov'15), Singapore (23-25 Nov'15), Russia (23-24 Dec'15), Afghanistan (25 Dec'15), Belgium (30 March'16), Saudi Arabia (2-3 April'16), Iran (22-23 May'16), Qatar (4-5 June'16), Switzerland (6 June'16), Mozambique (7 July'16), South Africa (8-9 July'16), Tanzania (10 July'16), Kenya (11 July'16), Vietnam (2-3 Sept'16), Spain (30-31 May'17), France (2-3 June'17), Portugal (24 June'17), Netherlands (27 June'17) and Israel (4-6 July'17) and Myanmar (5-7 September). In addition, he also undertook three 'Working Visits', i.e., uninvited and unscheduled to Lahore to attend Nawaj Shariff's birthday bash on way back from Kabul on 25th December'15, to Herat (Afghanistan) on 4th June'16 to inaugurate Afghan-India Friendship Dam on river Hari and to Mexico City on 9th June'16 to discuss India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group.

His high-profile non-State visits on various occasions and errands were to Brazil (13-16 July'14) to attend BRICS summit, to New York City(26-30Sept'14) to attend UN General Assembly session, to Naypyidaw in Myanmar (11-13 Nov'14) to attend East Asia summit, to Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney in Australia (14-18 Nov '14) to attend G-20 summit, to Kathmandu (25-27 Nov'14) to attend the SAARC summit, to Singapore (23rd March'15) to attend the State funeral of Lee Kuan Yew, to Ufa in Russia (8-10 July'15) to attend the BRICS summit, to New York City (24-30 Sept'15) to attend UN General Assembly Session, to Antalyain Turkey, (15-16 Nov'15) to attend G-20 summit, to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia (21-22 Nov'15) to attend ASEAN-India and East Asia summits, to Paris (30 Nov-1st Dec'15) to attend UN Climate Change Conference (COP2), to Brussels in Belgium (30 March'16) to attend the 1st India-EU summit, to Washington DC (31 March-01 April'16) to attend Nuclear Security summit, to Tashkent, Uzbekistan (23-24 June'16) to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, to Hangzhou, China (4- 5 Sept'16) to attend G-20 summit, to Vientiane in Laos (7-8 Sept'16) to attend East Asia summit, to Colombo &Kandy in Sri Lanka (11-12 May'17) to attend celebrations on International Day of Vesak, to St. Petersburg, Russia (31 May-02 June'17) to attend 18th India-Russia Annual, to Astana, Kazakhstan (8-9 June'17) to attend annual SCO summit and to Hamburg, Germany (7-8 July'17) to attend annual G-20 summit. He visited China (Xiamen) from 3rd to 5th September to attend the 9th BRICS Summit and is due to visit the Philippines (Manila) in November, this year, to attend 12th East Asia summit. Excluding travel time, he spent abroad 43 days in 2014, 47 days in 2015, 24 days in 2016 and till 13th September, this year, 24days in 2017, i.e., altogether 138 days, or over 4½ months. With onward and return travel time added (@ two days per trip), his total absence from India has been at least 270 days, or full ninemonths, i.e., more than a quarter of his normal tenure, hitherto. With about two years left of his five-year term, his total absence from the country he leads may be a year.

No other Prime Minister before him has been out of India for so long. What has Mr Modi achieved in these State and non-State visits? Abroad, Prime Minister is the face of India that everybody, Indian and non-Indian, looks at. In many of these places, he met and addressed Indian bureaucracy and the communities, living or settled there and attended their cultural presentations. Concrete gains do not always follow immediately from State or multilateral visits of political leaders but they help build and brighten the country's image abroad. Wherever he went, he spoke about his policies to attract investments and cooperation, particularly his 'Make in India' drive and to boost exports and bilateral trade. India was made a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in its summit on 23rd and 24th June 2017, along with Pakistan. Addressing it, he urged for connectivity of member countries with India and Iran's initiative to let its Chabahar port be used for trade and commerce with India. Located on Makran coast at the mouth of Strait of Hormuz, it is the only Iranian port, from where ships can sail directly into the Indian Ocean.

Most of his talks with leaders of countries on State visits have been of routine nature, if not platitudinous, on briefs prepared by India’s foreign missions. During his first visit to Nepal on 3rd and 4thAugust 2014, for example, he reviewed the bilateral Peace &Friendship Treaty of 1950's and India-funded hydro-electric and other infrastructure projects. He announced a credit of one billion (100 crore) US dollars to the Himalayan republic and offered to sell power to it. In his first visit to Japan from 30thAugust to 3rdSeptember 2014, he gave a boost to on-going official negotiations on its sale of US-2 amphibious aircraft for the Indian Navy and the long-pending civil nuclear agreements. His maiden address to the 69th session of the U N General Assembly on 27th September 2014, he called for reform and expansion of the UN Security Council and re-iterated India's perennial demand for permanent membership. An evaluation of the yields of these agreements will be an interesting study.

In visits to the UN in New York City, (26-30 Sept. '14) he called for immediate implementation of the 'Comprehensive on International Terrorism' by the world body to counter the ISIS threat to European and West Asian nations as well as similar threats in other parts of the worldin his address at the General Assembly session on 26th September, he ridiculed Nawaj Shariff's proposal for multilateral intervention on the issue of Kashmir; he said, India was ready for 'bilateral talks' with Pakistan, if it gave up terrorism against India. He urged world leaders and the UN to earmark an international 'Yoga Day', which the world body fixed on 21st June, every year. In Fiji on 19th November'14 he attended the 'Forum for India-Pacific Island cooperation' along with leaders from all 14 Pacific islands nations. In Seychelles, as part of "Indian Ocean Outreach" programme, he held talks with President James Alexis Michelin to strengthen maritime ties. In Hanover during his first Germany tour from 12th to 14th April'15, he projected his 'Make in India' campaign to various German industries.He made his first visit to China in May 2015; he was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Mongolia. During his visit, he boosted talks on the supplying of Mongolian Uranium to India. His visit to South Korea (18-19 May'15) was in accordance with India's East Asia policy and to hang his 'Make in India' carrot to its potential investors. In his visit to Bangladesh (6-7 June'15),he discussed with Sheikh Hasina government the ratification of the Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 and its Protocol of 2011. In his visit to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia (2-3 April'16), he discussed bilateral trade and issues on energy, security and well-being of Indian workers in the Arab country.He is first Indian to be conferred Saudi Arabia's highest civilian honour, 'the Order of King Abdulaziz'. He visited Qatar on 4th and 5th June'16, he held talks with the Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the hydrocarbon sector. During his visit to Switzerland on 6th June'16 he discussed with Swiss authorities the issue of repatriation of black money of rich Indians, stashed in Swiss banks and India's keenness to be a member of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. In a 'Working Visit' to Mexico City on 9th June'16 too, he discussed the issue.

Were these foreign travels and talks really necessary for India? The non-State visits for purposes outlined above are unavoidable and in fact, necessary for the country's global image and its international obligations but some of these can be delegated to the External Affairs Minister, her deputy or even to the President or Vice President. The State visits which are planned by Indian missions abroad, sometimes on his implicit desires, can be curtailed; only the historic ones like the visits to Israel, Mongolia and Pakistan deserved to be undertaken by the Prime Minister. India’s Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Consul-Generals are trained diplomats and if properly briefed by the PMO, can negotiate and sign agreements etc. that Prime Ministers do taking so much trouble. If Prime Ministers of developed countries keep them shining by undertaking lesser number of visits abroad, why should Indian PM be an exception? After all, it saves money and keeps the PM longer within the country and enables him attend to domestic problems, of which there is no dearth. He had just returned home from five-day tour of Israel and Germany (4th to 8th July'17), pledging to fight terrorism, when IS militants fired on Amarnath pilgrims near Anantanag and killed nine on 10th July'17 evening. When Darjeeling is boiling during an indefinite shutdown of the hills, called by the GJMM to press its demand for Gorkhaland, he was visiting Hamburg to meet G-20 leaders and the Netherlands. More such incidents, like Nero playing on violin, when Rome was burning, can be cited. Why should he give an impression to 125 crore people that he has an insatiable wanderlust that he would never have slaked, if he had not been the PM? Seeing him board Air India flights for destinations abroad on TV channels, people quip that he is after setting a Guinness record of being the 'world's most travelled Prime Minister'. Why should people mock at India's administrative head, who is otherwise doing so much for the country, indefatigably?

Vol. 50, No.17, Oct 29 - Nov 4, 2017