What the babus in Government and Air India wouldn’t do, the weather gods have done. For the past few years, Indian prime ministers have made it a habit of stopping in Europe to refuel and service their aircraft on long distance flights to and from the Americas, with Frankfurt or Geneva the preferred options. This, despite the fact that a stopover in Africa could cut travel time and overall costs, not to speak of allowing the possibility of a quick bilateral visit to a continent that is of growing strategic importance to India.
On his current visit, too, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advisers had him halting in Frankfurt en route to Washington and then again on the way back from the Brazilian capital. But with the airspace in western Europe compromised by the drift of volcanic ash from Iceland, Air India has been forced to reroute AI-1’s flight back home via Johannesburg in South Africa.
The stop will be brief, barely two hours, just long enough to refuel the jumbo jet. But it would be the first time the Prime Minister’s special flight touches down in the continent while on an onward western tour since Narasimha Rao’s famous visit to Ougadougou, Burkina Faso in November 1995.
Last year, when this European obsession was pointed out to the Prime Minister’s advisers, an attempt was made to build in a quick bilateral visit to Angola either to or from Pittsburgh, where Dr. Singh attended the G-20 summit. But with the chosen date falling over a weekend in Luanda, the stopover never happened.
The Prime Minister’s conservative travel schedule is in marked contrast to that of Chinese leaders, who normally build in visits to several countries once a principal event is pencilled into the calendar. Thus, President Hu Jintao was supposed to fly on to both Venezuela and Chile for bilateral talks following his attendance of the BRIC summit here before he was forced to cut short his visit because of the Qinghai earthquake.
In recent years, the president and prime minister of China have visited nearly two dozen African nations between them. Dr. Singh, in his six years at the helm, has visited only South Africa, Uganda and Egypt, all of them essentially for multilateral events. His only full-fledged bilateral visit has been to Nigeria in 2007, the first by an Indian prime minister to Africa's most populous country since 1962.