In response to a request under the Right to Information Act, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has revealed that PM Dr. Singh has incurred a whopping expenditure of over Rs. 642 Crores in the past 9 years he has been Prime Minister. The information reveals that Singh undertook 67 travels since 2004 when he took over as PM, of which bills of five have not been received. The bills received from the rest 62 visits show that Rs 642.45 crore was spent on air travel.
Last year, the information accessed by PTI had revealed that former President Pratibha Patil had spent Rs 223 crore on her visits abroad during her five years which triggered a debate on expenditure over VIP visits.
But I’m not here to criticise the expenditures on these overseas visits. I actually, encourage them. A rising nation like that of India certainly needs such high profile state visits to shore up bilateral ties with other nations in this highly networked, globalised world. I also understand that these expenditures are not WHOLLY spent on the PM or the President alone. It is common knowledge that during state visits, they do travel with a large staff contingent that can include senior officials, businessmen who’d be signing deals on behalf of the companies/ consortiums they’re representing and then of course, the press personnel. In addition to these people, the security personnel who travel with the dignitaries, all together push up these costs. Agreed. But what I’m here to talk about is what we’ve gotten out of these visits?
It shouldn’t be difficult for even a lay man to spot the way even India’s little neighbours take us for a ride. From the perennially problematic Pakistan to the incredibly annoying Sri Lanka, followed by Bangladesh, and now even probably Maldives. India’s diplomacy has consistently failed to deliver in all these countries. Part of the problem is because we’ve been reactive to the developments in our immediate neighbourhood, rather than being proactive.
In the Himalayan Kingdom:
Until King Gyanendra was in power in Nepal, it was a staunch ally of India. Priding itself as being the “only Hindu Kingdom” in the world, its ties were brotherly with India. It was the only other country with which India had an ‘open’ border and its exports flowed through Indian ports. India was also its biggest market. But following the turmoil in this Himalayan Kingdom and the subsequent elections, which saw the rise of the Nepali ‘Maoist’ party (CPN – Maoist) was what changed the situation to India’s disadvantage. In spite of clearly realising that the CPN-Maoists now had a very clear and overwhelming majority amongst the Nepali electorate, India failed to grasp the signals and failed to engage with them constructively. The CPN (Maoists) had already nursed distrust against India for our support to the Royal Nepalese army (RNA) during the civil war and the support we provided to the then King Gyanendra and his predecessor, King Birendra. This new opportunity was grasped by China, which was alleged to have been funding & equipment these rebels during the civil war. The RNA routinely displayed images of captured rebels arms, most of which included the famous Chinese Type 56 rifle (identical copies of Soviet AK-47) and the Type-69 Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) (also a copy of the Soviet RPG-7), indicating the deep connections the rebels might’ve had with their alleged patrons.
When the Chairman of the ‘Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Famously known as Prachanda) took over as the PM, his first visit as the elected head of state was to Beijing and not New Delhi! Every Nepali head of state had made India their first port of call. This huge gesture, though symbolic, indicates how the new Nepali government had leaned towards Beijing. Although he has since stepped down as PM, the damage has already been done.
China’s ambassador to Kathmandu was recently pictured in a traditional Nepali cap and silk scarf, digging with a spade to symbolise the laying of the foundations of a new dry port near the Tibet border. The photo opportunity marked the latest in a series of major projects that underscore China’s growing economic influence in Nepal, where it is building roads and investing billions of dollars in hydropower and telecommunications.
Other Chinese projects in its impoverished, electricity-starved Himalayan neighbour include a $1.6 billion hydropower plant which is expected finally to end power outages which extend to 14 hours a day in winter. Meanwhile China recently completed a 22-kilometre (14-mile) stretch of road in central Nepal connecting the country’s southern plains with the Tibetan county of Kyirong, to form the shortest motorable overland route between China and India. It has also offered to fund an international airport in the tourist hub of Pokhara. On top of infrastructure development, around two dozen Chinese companies have invested $100 million in housing, hotels, restaurants and other areas of tourism in Nepal. By the end of 2013 annual trade between the two countries is expected to hit $1.5 billion, a 25-percent rise on an annual basis.
Liberators then, bullies today!
After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975, the military regime that assumed power began distancing Bangladesh from India and the Soviet Union. Diplomatic relations with China were established in January 1976. Growing public anger at India’s unilateral moves to construct the Farakka Barrage and divert waters of the Ganges, led the new regime in Bangladesh to look to China for strategically balancing the country’s position in the region. In 1977, military ruler General Ziaur Rehaman made an official visit to the PRC. Successive governments in Bangladesh followed the policy of building close relations with China.
By the mid-1980s, China had forged close commercial and cultural ties with Bangladesh and also supplied it with military aid and equipment. The then-president of Bangladesh Hossain Mohammad Ershadwas received with much fanfare and warmth when he visited Beijing in July 1987. A Bangladesh-China friendship bridge was constructed and inaugurated over river Buriganga connecting Dhaka-Munshigonj by the Chinese as token of this newly advancing diplomatic and military relationship. On October 4, 2000, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications of the Bangladeshi government issued a postal stamp marking the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Bangladesh-China diplomatic relations. By this time, China had provided economic assistance totalling 217 million USD to Bangladesh and the bilateral trade had reached a value mounting to USD 715 million dollars. In 2002, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made an official visit to Bangladesh and both countries declared 2005 as the “Bangladesh-China Friendship Year.” The two countries signed nine different bi-lateral agreements to increase their mutual relationship. On Bangladeshi invitation China was added as an observer in the SAARC in a rare moment of arm twisting of India. Bangladesh and Pakistan were believed to have threatened India to either let in China as an observer or they might prevent Afghanistan’s entrance into the SAARC. New Delhi had no alternative but to concede ground. Yet again.
In spite of braving the odds and risking intervention by the US forces in aid of a beleaguered West Pakistan, India went ahead in a rare act of assertiveness and liberated Bangladesh with significant costs. The failure of successive Indian government to sustain that goodwill and the historic links between the Indian state of West Bengal and the newly formed state of Bangladesh has led it to increasingly tilt towards Beijing. The Bangladeshi army today uses Chinese manufactured tanks. Its navy uses Chinese built frigates and missile boats and its air force too, flies Chinese jets. According to a 2006 report submitted to the UN by the PRC, Bangladesh is one of the major buyers of conventional Chinese armaments globally.
To be continued…