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Sonia leads party to PM send-off
OLD HABITS DIE HARD

New Delhi, July 29: Manmohan Singh succeeded in ending the send-off ritual and he did not.

The rows of ministers lined up with folded hands and grand bouquets were missing at Indira Gandhi International Airport as the Prime Minister left for Thailand.

But 30 km away, at Safdarjung Airport, he had to give in to the ritual that goes back to Jawaharlal Nehru’s time.

Sonia Gandhi reportedly insisted that as it was Singh’s first overseas official trip as Prime Minister, his Congress colleagues must bid him farewell.

Sonia’s wish was command for Singh’s security and Delhi police. Till last night, it was understood that the Prime Minister would drive straight from his residence to Palam. The plan was reworked this morning.

Singh took a chopper to the international terminal from Safdarjung, where Sonia and his ministerial colleagues saw him off.

After Sonia’s intervention, the Prime Minister was keen that his departure must not hold up traffic along the route to Palam airport, one of the capital’s busiest arteries.

If Sonia and company had headed for the IGI terminal, a stretch of about 20 km from Singh and Sonia’s residences to the airport would have had to be sanitised for the time taken to reach the airport and for Sonia to return. On the other hand, Sonia’s house is only about 7 km from the Safdarjung airfield.

A day before he left for Bangkok to attend the Bimstec (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation) summit, Singh sent a communiqué to his colleagues asking them to avoid the elaborate rituals accompanying the departure and arrival of a Prime Minister.

THE ONE PERSON HE CAN’T SAY NO TO

An observer attributed this unprecedented step to his “understated personality”. Earlier, he had restricted the use of his photographs in government advertisements.

At Safdarjung, located in the heart of the city close to the Prime Minister’s Race Course Road residence, Singh was bid farewell by defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, human resource development minister Arjun Singh and parliamentary affairs minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, among others.

Sonia decided to be present along with several ministers because it was Singh’s first trip abroad since taking over and she felt the party should be represented when he flies out, Congress leader Ambika Soni said.

Asked about the last-minute change, Azad said it was done to avoid traffic congestion. Moreover, Singh did not want his ministerial colleagues to waste two hours driving to the Palam airport.

Where’s my ticket'

The Prime Minister has not failed to surprise his aides either. Today he asked for his air ticket, before he was politely reminded that it was a special flight for him.

His staff was also puzzled when Singh sought some foreign exchange to be at hand for wife Gursharan Kaur to give tips to waiters and hotel staff during the three-day visit. Singh, who is generally seen in kurta-pyjama, got a ceremonial bandhgala stitched only two days ago.

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