Suhasini Haidar

Kathmandu diary

Kathmandu: Prime Minister Narendra Modi being welcomed by his Nepalese counterpart Sushil Koirala on arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal on Sunday. PTI Photo by Vijay Verma(PTI8_3_2014_000095B)   | Photo Credit: PTI

Greetings from Kathmandu, where I have landed to cover Prime Minister Modi’s historic trip. Historic, because he is the first Indian PM to make a bilateral visit to Nepal in 17 years. Mr. Vajpayee travelled there for the SAARC summit in 2002, and Dr.Manmohan Singh never did. In a big departure from protocol, Nepal’s PM Sushil Koirala even received PM Modi at the airport.

The visit is part of the PM’s ‘neighbourhood outreach’, in a tenure that began with the invitation to all SAARC leaders for his swearing-in. After that, he went to Bhutan, while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went to Bangladesh. Even Air India acknowledges this emphasis on subcontinental relations, and has offered discounts on all flights to neighbouring countries. There’s a flaw though, and that is that Air India doesn’t even fly to all neighbouring countries.

There have been no flights to Pakistan in more than a decade. Most of its routes to Dhaka were given to private airlines some years ago, and Indian airlines doesn’t fly to Bhutan. No Indian flight operates to Myanmar, although a short Imphal-Mandalay private charter was recently inaugurated. The exceptions to this rule are Nepal and Sri Lanka, presumably, not because of any neighbourly feeling, but because of commercial interests, given they are tourist destinations. One happy by-product of Mr. Modis plans to travel in the region may be, if the media focusses on the difficulties of commercial travellers, in each of the countries he visits.

Of course, the reason for flying commercial at all is that the PM has offloaded private media from Air India 001. The decision was first communicated just before his visit to Thimphu, when the Ministry of External Affairs forwarded a list of invited media to the new Prime Minister’s office, and it was returned with a large red slash across it. Mr. Modi would only travel with national media, i.e Doordarshan, and select agencies like PTI and ANI. The direct was repeated for his visit to Brazil for the BRICS summit, with only 6 of the 34 slots for accompanying media being filled. Many have hailed this as a welcome decision. “What right does the media have to expect a free ride at the tax-payers expense,” said one columnist. One leading television channel has said sourly that Mr. Modi’s decision would hit India’s “junket lobby”. Others have remarked sourly on all the “perks” of being accompanying media that should have been curtailed a long time ago. The truth is far removed from this.

To begin with, the PM doesn’t take accompanying media at an “extra cost”, as the seats are available on his flight anyway. Admittedly, the PMO should charge the media for those seats, as the US President and other leaders do. Secondly, the idea of a “free ride” indicates that journalists are hoping for some leisure time at their destination. As a journalist who has covered several visits in the past, I can only say that is a great big myth. Accompanying media normally write their stories inflight as they are briefed on-board, so they can file as soon as they land. There is always a mad scramble to file on the ground as well as they have to board AI 001 well before the PM, and often are dragged off mid-story. After all, when Prime Ministers finish their meetings at one place, they don’t hang around waiting for journalists to also file on those meetings!

So why does it matter that the press is no longer on-board? Quite simply, the casualty is access. While not all PMs are like Mr.Vajpayee or Mr. Gujral, who happily chatted with the press when on the flight, some like Dr. Manmohan Singh made a point of meeting accompanying journalists atleast once on the visit. That access isn’t some ego-trip for those journalists, it is a vital part of covering the Prime Minister’s trip, of understanding, if even on background, what his mood and his plans are, and of conveying that to readers and viewers. As a result, while Mr. Modi has an extremely efficient information-dissemination machinery, it is not any longer a two-way street, with the kind of human touch such access provides. Only time will tell if the policy will continue, or if Mr. Modi relents as he gains more confidence in giving media that kind of insight into his work.

Meanwhile, Kathmandu is in a sort of lockdown for the visit, with heavy security including army personnel to guard him. Roads are blocked, and every paper has a long account of the times main throughfares will be closed for the PMs convoy. It will be interesting to see if Mr Modi does a repeat of his Thimphu visit last month, when he jumped out of his car and shook hands with Bhutanese locals waving at him!



P.S. The last question on the blog was answered soon after as Mr. Modi walked and met crowds on his route to parliament.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 6:25:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-suhasini-haidar/article6277255.ece

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