Suhasini Haidar

Colombo buzz: Non-Stop PM and a cricket-loving counterpart

Non-stop PM

Prime Minister Modi doesn't tire easily. His five day Indian Ocean visit is only the latest in his foreign tours where he spends every waking hour in engagements. After tracking him on eight visits (to 12 countries) abroad since taking over, five of which I have travelled to cover, it is easy to see the patterns in engagements he prefers. Apart from official meetings, he has addressed parliaments in Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Australia and the Maldives. He visits monuments and shrines of all kinds (though not to a church or mosque yet), always addresses the business community, and an event with the Indian diaspora is a must. Over time, he has gained comfort with the teleprompter, which he uses for all speeches in English, while his speeches in Hindi, like the visit to The Mahabodhi society in Colombo and the public address in Jaffna were extempore. As a result his days are jam-packed, and on the five day visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, he attended more than 40 engagements. There would have been even more if he had visited the Maldives too, which as the printed tags for his entourage show (see photo) was on his original itinerary. Perhaps all for the best, as after India expressed concern over the arrest of former President Nasheed just ahead of the visit, the sentencing of Mr. Nasheed to 13years in prison would have coincided with the PM's visit to Male, which would have been awkward indeed.

Easing up on strictures against scribes?

Do we sense a slight if only just a bit of relaxing in the PMO's stern strictures against the travelling press corps? In a previous blog, I've written about how PM Modi has axed the on-board media delegation, taking only state media and a few agencies, bringing the original 35 that PM Manmohan Singh took to about 5. One should have no quarrel with the argument that private media houses should not travel at public expense, and should be made to pay for their tickets on board the PM's plane, thus defraying the cost of such visits. But to refuse to carry them means the seats go empty, and even signifies a theoretical loss for the tax payer. Moreover, his visits to under-reported countries like Fiji and the Seychelles etc remain under-reported, as most private media only travel to the easily accessible countries. The restrictions don't end there however. Reportedly on the PM's orders, Indian embassy receptions for the Indian community have been off limits to the travelling press corps. This has led to tricky moments in Kathmandu for example, when the Indian media from Delhi was asked to stay inside the press centre, while the reception was held just next door. Or in New York, when members of the press corps who were invited to the reception by mistake were told by embarrassed Indian embassy staffers that they should stay away. However the Sri Lanka visit was marked by two exceptions... For the first time, the PM took a correspondent for a private television agency ANI on board (only a cameraman had been allowed in the past), and Indian media was invited to India House for the reception. Will await the PM's next visit to Europe and Canada in April to see if the change towards the media is here to stay!

The Rajapaksa Rout Rumour

In a rare gesture the PM decided to meet former President Rajapaksa during his Colombo visit. While the PM doesn't have to by protocol, the request is understood to have been made given the personal equation they had built in three meetings last year, as also perhaps to lay to rest the rumours that Indian agencies had contributed to Mr. Rajapaksa's electoral defeat. The story, reported by Reuters, and doing the rounds in Delhi and Colombo is that the R&AW station chief in colombo was recalled to Delhi IN December 2014 over allegations that he was interfering in the political process. Put in simple language, the allegation was that the then opposition led by President Sirisena was funded by Indian and Western agencies who helped in providing encrypted telephones and other support to organise the unusual grouping involving former rivals of the UNP and SL. Two days before the meeting, President Rajapaksa spoke to The Hindu at his residence in Colombo putting those rumours on the record. In his interview, he said that while he believed the elections were free and fair, the agencies named had been in "a conspiracy" to oust him for two years. Given the background, it would be very interesting to hear what transpired when Mr. Modi met Mr. Rajapaksa at India house. Unfortunately, all aides including NSA Ajit Doval weren't present at the meeting, and even an official website photographer was shooed out pretty quickly.

School pride over protocol duty

While Mr. Rajapaksa was clearly mollified with the request for the meeting, another leader, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe was reported to be sulking by local newspapers. According to local newspapers, Mr. Wickremsinghe was supposed to fly to Jaffna with PM Modi, just as the President had accompanied the PM to Anuradhapura, but decided not to. Sri Lankan officials denied the report, saying Mr. Wickremsinghe is planning a longer trip to Jaffna at the end of the month which was why he probably didn't accompany the PM. There’s other speculation, over just what Mr. Wickremsinghe is upset about right now: the obvious Indian outrage over his interview to Thanthi TV, where he asserted Sri Lanka’s “right to shoot” trespassing fishermen, and said the IPKF was also responsible for civilian deaths in the 1980s. Or whether it is his running battle with Northern Province CM CV Wigneswaran, who has been trading insults with him for weeks now, and prefers to deal with President Sirisena. Or whether it is the power struggle within the government, that will face its big test in upcoming parliamentary elections, even as PM Wickremsinghe insists that President Sirisena hand over powers from the all-powerful presidency to him, a process that has been delayed.

Whatever the reason for Mr. Wickremsinghe’s absence from PM Modi’s programmes on day 2 of the visit, school pride clearly won over PM duties... Mr. Wickremsinghe spent much of Saturday at the Singhalese cricket club instead, watching the annual Royal-Thomian match, a historic event, especially for the former Royal school student, the PM who came wearing school coulours.

Battle of the blues

"I won't let you go in from here", said the man at the ticket gate, when a fellow woman journalist and I showed up at the SCC to try and waylay the Sri Lankan PM who had avoided the media ever since his interview on "shooting fishermen" had hit Indian headlines. Contrary to what we thought, the ticket checker wasn't protecting the PM from journalists, but trying to protect us from rowdy revellers at the match. For those not familiar with the event, this is the 136th year that cricket teams of the Royal school and St. Thomas are facing off in what is now the second longest uninterrupted cricket match series in the world, dubbed the “Battle of the Blues”. The cricket grounds are a carnival, with not just locals but alumni from around the world flying in for the match in March each year, beer on tap and dozens of bands belting out school songs. We make our way to the member’s box, where we track the Sri Lankan PM down and try to persuade him to speak to two Indian journalists. He is unmoved by our pleas, grimaces and tells us we would be better off covering the PM Modi's official visit in Jaffna, and possibly wanted to say, not bothering him at his school match. Chastened, we comply.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 9:58:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-suhasini-haidar/article7003836.ece

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