CONVENTIONS ARE NOT easily overturned, as the genteel, publicity-shunning Manmohan Singh discovered to his dismay on the morning of his departure for the BIMST-EC summit in Bangkok. Dr. Singh evidently thought he had found a foolproof way to circumvent the fuss and fanfare surrounding prime ministerial departures to foreign shores when he issued a communiqu� advising his colleagues against the practice of assembling at the airport for a ceremonial send-off. Alas, he did not reckon with the ingenuity of the system. The ministerial entourage, led by no less than Congress president Sonia Gandhi, got around the Prime Minister's request by turning up instead at Safdarjung Airport, located in the neighbourhood of 7 Race Course Road. Ms. Gandhi has, of course, been credited with the view that since it was Dr. Singh's first tour overseas as head of government, a send-off was entirely in order. She was obviously also aware that if she herself was not present to see him off, her absence would lead to all manner of misinterpretations about the state of affairs between the Congress party and the Prime Minister's office. In the event, the Ministers and Ms. Gandhi gathered at the appointed hour to see off Dr. Singh, yet in deference to his wishes refrained from going in a cavalcade to the international airport. To be sure, the occasion was a photographer's delight, what with Dr. Singh bashfully accepting a single rose from Ms. Gandhi.

The Prime Minister's advice to his colleagues to spare everyone the bother of a formal send-off appears to have flowed only partly from his own discomfiture with the trappings of power, including the absurd displays of deference if not servility considered de rigueur in official circles. Perhaps he was persuaded even more by the expenditure and the waste of productive hours involved in taking a ministerial convoy to the airport — and most of all by the nuisance this tends to cause thousands of ordinary citizens. Each time the Prime Minister travels anywhere in India, the route is sanitised to facilitate `VVIP movement'. A ministerial convoy appended to Dr. Singh would have dislocated traffic in large parts of the capital for an unspecified period of time. That would have been quite inappropriate for a Government that claims to have the mandate of ordinary India as opposed to the `Shining India' that its predecessor championed.

Ritualistic send-offs and such may seem an inoffensive self-indulgence given that governments everywhere are wedded to official paraphernalia. Tony Blair's ministerial team might not mob him at the airport as he embarks on a special mission to the United States but the British Prime Minister will go through ostentatious welcoming and arrival ceremonies at the other end. Besides, not all of this is a matter of individual discretion. In India, for instance, the protocol for internal travel is clearly laid out. The head of state must be "received on arrival and seen off at the time of departure by the Governor, Chief Minister, Chief Secretary to the State Government and the Inspector-General of police apart from the Mayor and Sheriff of the town visited." Much the same applies to the visiting Prime Minister, although, interestingly, in a bow to quasi-federalism, the protocol makes no such demand of the State Council of Ministers. Thus: "Members of the State Council of Ministers or other officers need not be present." As for the offending official cavalcade, the Prime Minister will take heart from this clincher: "The official cavalcade, both at official and private visits of the Prime Minister, should be as short as possible. Under no circumstances should the cars of State Ministers, officials and non-officials be tagged on to the cavalcade." Bravo, Dr. Singh.

Recommended for you