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Famously quiet PM

South blocked

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Our PM is strangely reticent on the international stage, and misses out on opportunities to improve ties.

The prime minister was in Tehran last week. It was a visit that attracted no small attention all over the world. After all, Iran, a subject of widespread economic sanctions was hosting a 120-nation summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. NAM may be a misnomer in the current day and age, but hey, it brings together the largest group of countries outside the UN General Assembly. That has to count for something.
But apart from making that statement - that India's foreign policy decisions are independent, the fact that the NAM summit was held in Iran, literally at the heart of the current round of unrest in the Middle East, was a unique opportunity for the Indian foreign policy establishment. Small and big players were there in strength and it was a fantastic time to gauge the temperature of what is happening there and the prognosis in the immediate term. Indeed, the PM should have been networking with a vengeance.

Our famously quiet PM met a few leaders - from Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, and oh yes, Afghanistan (until somebody grabbed the Syrian PM for a 15-minute 'hello' ). Great.

We travel all that way into the thick of the action, and the PM spends the first 24 hours in the now famous 'Manmohan Singh mode'. The Iranian leadership, after indicating a morning meeting, turned around and said 'evening', with a banquet thrown in. Our PM wasted an entire day hanging around in Tehran with no one to see, doing things he would have done in New Delhi. There were no meetings with leaders of say, Oman or Qatar, or any of the African or Latin American leaders. Granted, many countries sent their foreign ministers, but even they could have met with the PM.

The prime minister has a protocol position, but he is not king. If he had met those foreign ministers, the message that would have gone back to their capitals would have read like this, "India takes us seriously, guys, Prime Minister Singh met our foreign minister. " It would have given heft to India's foreign engagement in countries where the Chinese footprint is inordinately high and where India wants to open up new opportunities for itself.

Nothing against our neighbourhood leaders, but hey, Singh can meet them in South Asia, any day of the week. The fact that the PM has to meet South Asian leaders in distant lands - he met the same lot, with Sri Lanka and Bhutan as additions - at the other end of the world, in Los Cabos, Mexico and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is not really a good sign.

This obscures a shocking fact: the PM does not 'do' neighbourhood. He went to Bhutan and Male because it was Saarc. He has made one bilateral trip to Dhaka and that too because Sheikh Hasina met him more than half-way. He only wants to visit Pakistan, a desire that is making a mess of our bilateral 'to-do' list with that country. It sends a wrong signal to not only Pakistan but every other country in our neighbourhood - that somehow Pakistan is primus inter pares and only because they covet our territory and send terrorists into our country. For all the talk about our neighbourhood being of the first consideration, the PM can't be bothered to go there. If these leaders come to India on pilgrimages - think Asif Zardari, Ram Baran Yadav, Than Shwe and now Mahinda Rajapakse - Manmohan Singh will scrape out a lunch invite. But he won't go to their capitals.

Having seen the PM fairly consistently for some time, my view is the problem lies with his minders, not with him. The secretaries and advisers who hover around him like clucking hens, with nary a single communications strategy among all of them, believe they can only do him one service, that is, to keep him away from everyone, foreign leaders, media, you name it.

But there were days when the PM met many more people, and his quiet, intelligent conversation won over several;certainly far more than the muddle-headed bureaucrats he employs for the job. I remember overhearing one foreign visitor floored by Manmohan Singh's disquisition on the urbanisation policy of South Korea.

So while The Washington Post may have snitched quotes for a story on the PM this week, we can all sympathise with their defence that an interview request with Manmohan Singh was denied. None of us in the Indian media get an interview anyway. We can't even get an appointment with the PM, because his nannies exercise thought control. Heck, even during press conferences with foreign leaders, these nannies send out emails asking for questions and then choose the most favourable ones for the asking.

May we remind them that we live in the world's largest democracy and it is our right to question the prime minister?

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