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Mourning superpower in a trip fix

New Delhi, Dec. 6: India is contemplating a quick, one-day dash by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or President Pranab Mukherjee to Johannesburg to join a galaxy of world leaders at next weekend’s memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela.

But the ongoing Parliament session and a diplomatic complication are forcing the foreign policy establishment to also consider Vice-President Hamid Ansari as a possible candidate to represent India at the December 14 event, senior officials told The Telegraph.

India has announced a five-day national state mourning that officials said is longer than any it has declared for a foreign national before. It appears to be the longest declared anywhere today outside South Africa, which has announced 10 days of mourning.

Both the Prime Minister and President offered condolences linking Mandela’s non-violent battle against apartheid in South Africa to India’s own fight for independence under Mahatma Gandhi.

But officials conceded that nothing sends a stronger signal in the world of diplomacy than a nation’s “level of participation” at key global events, including funerals.

Mandela had been awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990. “With the deep, deep reverence we have for President Mandela, you can be certain that a very high-level delegation will go,” the foreign ministry spokesperson said.

South Africa has indicated that it intends to have a special ceremony on December 14 for leaders jetting in from across the world. But choosing a face to represent India is proving tough for New Delhi.

Manmohan Singh, who called Mandela a “giant among men”, a “beacon of hope” and the “conscience of the world” in a statement today, is an obvious choice.

But Parliament is in session. The Prime Minister has in the past travelled abroad while the House was running, but it has attracted criticism.

Besides, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to visit India from December 13 to 15, and Singh has planned a dinner in his honour on the day of his arrival, officials said. “If the Prime Minister is here on December 13 evening, it’s hard for him to be in Johannesburg the next morning,” an official said.

President Mukherjee has been a reluctant foreign traveller since moving into Rashtrapati Bhavan. Vice-President Ansari could therefore be eventually asked to step in, officials indicated.

“President Mandela was a statesman, world leader and icon of inspiration for humanity,” Mukherjee today said.

A Congress delegation too is scheduled to attend one of the events in South Africa, and there is a possibility of Sonia Gandhi going. Else, a senior leader such as P. Chidambaram may lead the team.

Sonia today described Mandela as “an icon of human strength and dignity in the face of injustice”. A Congress Working Committee resolution said: “The people of India feel bereaved as if they had lost their own leader.”

Parliament too paid tributes before being adjourned.

United by sport

In 1995, Mandela strode onto the field at the rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg wearing South African colours and bringing the overwhelmingly white crowd of more than 60,000 to its feet. “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” they chanted as the President congratulated the victorious home team. Mandela’s decision to wear the Springbok emblem, a symbol once hated by blacks, conveyed the message that rugby, so long shunned by the black population, was now for all South Africans. The scene was recreated in the 2009 film Invictus, which was based on episodes from Mandela’s life. Mandela, a boxer in his younger days, was closely linked with sport.


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