The closing ceremony of the 2010 Commonwealth Games held in Delhi. (Fotocorp)
New Delhi, July 10: “Look East” may be the buzzword in India’s foreign policy but does not apply at home — even when it’s about hosting an Indo-Asean summit.
South Block babus are struggling to find a suitable venue for the November event but will not look east, west or south beyond the capital. They have been lukewarm to suggestions about Bangalore or Chennai, and have nixed Goa and Kerala, citing cost, convenience and security.
Calcutta, whose selection could have been symbolic since it’s India’s gateway to the east, doesn’t even get a mention in these matters because it’s deemed to lack the infrastructure. And that infrastructure is unlikely to come if the city never gets to host a prestigious international event....
Have such summits been ever held outside Delhi? “Only once, in 1986,” recalled former ambassador Ronen Sen. Babus had proposed holding the second Saarc summit in Delhi but then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi disagreed, Sen said.
“Why should we be Delhi-centric?” Rajiv said citing India’s federal polity. The event went to Bangalore.
The heads of 10 Asean nations are expected in November, along with senior ministers from East Asia Summit members like Russia, Japan, China and America. There will be armies of officials and Indian and foreign journalists.
The problem of suitable convention rooms and lodging dawned on babudom in end-March, when Delhi hosted the much smaller Brics summit involving just four visiting heads of government. The event generated enough worldwide interest for hundreds of journalists and observers to descend on Delhi.
South Block found out that the Taj Palace Hotel didn’t have a hall large enough for 500-odd journalists and hundreds of foreign observers, forcing it to restrict entry and putting a question mark on India’s ability to host such events.
For the November event, South Block has already rejected Vigyan Bhavan, venue of most big government functions, because it lacks a professional staff adept at hosting international events.
Now officials have come up with a plan to split the summit between the Taj Palace and Maurya Sheraton hotels, separated by a four-lane street. But some in the ministry feel the plan is unwieldy and that other cities should get a look-in.
Former diplomat Arundhati Ghose favoured Goa. She recalled how Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting’s (Chogm) “retreat” – where the leaders get away to hold bilateral or informal talks --- in Goa in November 1983. The main conference, though, was held in Delhi.
Sen said that during Rajiv’s tenure, the experience of how the 1982 Asiad changed New Delhi’s face led to “serious consideration” being given to the idea of giving other cities their chance. But the rise in terrorism jinxed the plan.
“Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore are cities where such events can be held. I would even say Calcutta is a good option for an Asean summit though connectivity from the airport to the city could be a problem,” he said.
Russia hosts major summits in Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok and St Petersburg. Germany, France and Britain too try to look beyond their capitals. China has hosted international events in Hainan, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
India’s ambition to host the more prestigious East Asia Summit alongside the India-Asean summit has already suffered because of Asean’s doubts about New Delhi’s capabilities as host. The India-Asean summit usually takes place on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit but this time South Korea will host the latter.
The South Block “pragmatists” rooting for Delhi have cited cost and “convenience”: the city is the seat of governance and its police are experienced at providing security for such events.
Ghose agreed that moving the entire government machinery outside New Delhi and organising board and lodging for foreign and Indian officials can be costly.
“But,” she said, “hosting the summit in one hotel would definitely be cheaper than doing it across two hotels and securing the area between them.”
Rajya Sabha MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former IFS officer, has been critical of the tendency to invest more of the nation’s money into an already infrastructure-rich capital. He had opposed hosting the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
South Block can probably learn from Indonesia and Thailand, which in recent years hosted Asean summits not in Jakarta or Bangkok but in Bali and Pattaya.