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BJP swoops on Sonia ‘protocol’

New Delhi, June 15: The BJP today said foreign minister K. Natwar Singh has set a “wrong precedent” by accompanying Sonia Gandhi to Russia.

Party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said Singh has committed a breach of protocol. Even if the Congress chief’s visit is in her official capacity as National Advisory Council chairperson, which gives her the rank of a cabinet minister, Singh, he said, enjoys a higher status as cabinet minister.

Singh should have been representing India at the ongoing Group of 77 meet in Doha, the spokesperson said. The foreign minister, he added, has set a “wrong precedent in diplomacy”.

Javadekar asked the government to clarify whether Sonia ' who left for Moscow on Monday for the four-day trip as President Vladimir Putin’s “personal guest” ' had gone to Russia as chairperson of the central coalition, Congress chief or chairperson of the advisory council.

He also asked whether her visit was official or personal. “In both cases, the external affairs minister’s accompanying her is wrong diplomatically. It sends out a wrong message,” Javadekar said.

Officials in the external affairs ministry do not agree. “Singh is also a senior Congress leader and a member of the party’s working committee. He can also travel in his personal capacity,” they said in private.

Even so, they dropped hints that Singh might be accompanying his party leader at government expense and, thus, in an official capacity. “His travel to Russia may be en route to his scheduled two-day official visit to Norway from June 16,” said an official.

The Congress dismissed the BJP’s criticism but refused to say whether Singh was travelling in his official or personal capacity. Spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan said she could not speak on behalf of the foreign ministry.

Natarajan remained non-committal when asked about reports that Sonia had chartered a private aircraft belonging to a leading industrial house in the country. “We are not aware of it,” she said.

In private, however, a party functionary said he found nothing wrong in chartering a private plane as political leaders often do and pay for the service. “If the plane is chartered by a leader, the party pays for it,” the functionary added.

Asked to comment on a report that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh violated protocol by visiting the airport to personally see off Sonia, Natarajan said neither would do anything that could breach protocol.

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office refused comment. But sources close to Manmohan Singh felt that “no Prime Minister can be a prisoner of protocol” and “there is nothing wrong if a Prime Minister goes to see off someone”.

The BJP, however, held its fire. “We are trying to get the details to ascertain if there was a breach (of protocol) or not by the Prime Minister,” spokesperson Javadekar said.

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