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Protocol ache for Putin minders

- Protest cloud forces shift of venue

New Delhi, Dec. 24: The venue of the Prime Minister’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin was changed today because of the protests against atrocities on women.

Christmas Eve turned out to be one of the worst days in recent times for India’s protocol minders.

The external affairs ministry was forced to shift the venue of the talks to the Prime Minister’s 7 Race Course Road residence from the spacious Hyderabad House near India Gate, the epicentre of the protests over the weekend.

The change meant only 30 of the 55 Russian media persons who had accompanied Putin were allowed in.

The shift in itself was a departure from protocol. Hyderabad House is where the foreign ministry hosts bilateral talks between the Prime Minister and a visiting head of state or government as such summit-level talks should take place at a neutral ground.

The Russian media rubbed salt into the protocol wound. One report quoted Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov as saying that Manmohan Singh’s official home was chosen as it was “quiet, calm, away from the streets”.

The report said the shift to a “more secure location” was required as “Delhi was now covered with protests” because a girl was gang-raped in a bus and “walking through the streets was not safe”.

The irony was striking, considering the Russian habit of packing off protesters to jail. Two members of punk protest band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in Russian penal colonies for bursting into Moscow’s main cathedral and performing a song calling on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin. The harsh sentence had triggered an international outcry.

For the Indians, more embarrassment was in store. Putin’s insistence at not spending a minute in Delhi beyond what was required left the ministry with little option but to schedule his meetings with UPA chief Sonia Gandhi and Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Putin had landed a couple of hours after midnight and gone straight to his hotel. He reached Singh’s residence an hour later than scheduled at noon today and held a two-hour meeting with him. He then met President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan, where he lunched. He also met Sonia and Sushma there.

Usually, both Sonia and Sushma would have been expected to call on the Russian President at his hotel.

By 5pm, Putin was on his way back to Moscow.

Sources said the main talks at Race Course Road passed off without any “dissonance” on the Kudankulam nuclear plant and the aircraft carrier Gorshkov.

The joint statement issued after the talks said the two sides “took note of the progress made in the joint development and production” of fifth-generation aircraft and the BrahMos supersonic missile.