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Short on sleep, PM snoozes on flight

- ‘NO SATURDAY OR SUNDAY, SINGH SLOGGED 24x7’
Manmohan Singh raises a toast with Myanmar President Thein Sein at a dinner marking the third Bimstec summit in Myanmar on Monday. (AP)

New Delhi, March 5: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh caught up with a “much-needed” 40 winks on board the return flight from Nay Pyi Taw to Delhi and, in the process, skipped what was to be almost certainly his last interaction with the travelling media team.

Actually, the catnap might have been a longish snooze during the nearly three-hour flight yesterday but it was something Singh was “yearning for”, said his aides.

“For the past two months, he hardly slept. Parliament, the ordinance business, Telangana, Jat reservations, everything left him and us in want of sleep. There was no Saturday or Sunday. The PM slogged 24x7. He got a respite today (March 4) and he wants to make the best of it,” an aide said.

For the Prime Minister, the two-day Bimstec summit --- hosted by Myanmar at its spanking new capital Nay Pyi Taw --- was perhaps the best parting gift from India’s neighbours, immediate and extended, because it came wrapped in goodwill, nostalgia and emotion.

Every world leader from the six member-countries (other than India) knew when they shook hands with Singh, it was perhaps a farewell gesture for an outgoing Prime Minister. They also realised that realistically they could not do substantive business with him in the bilaterals.

Therefore, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was “very gracious” towards Singh and said she “appreciated the difficulties” his government faced before it could table the “landmark” Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh in Parliament, said Salman Khurshid, the external affairs minister.

In a way, Singh was more fortuitous than his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

As Prime Minister, Vajpayee had been very keen on attending the first Bimstec summit in Thailand’s Phuket in early February 2004. By then, the BJP — chuffed by its victories in the 2003 state elections — decided it must go in for an early Lok Sabha poll to encash “popular goodwill”.

The election was scheduled to be held in October 2004 but the party’s strategists wanted it advanced to April. They began persuading Vajpayee to recommend his government’s dissolution in mid-January --- precisely January 14 because it was the day of Makar Sankranti.

Vajpayee’s only plea was he wished to attend the Bimstec summit as the full-fledged head of a government and not as a caretaker Prime Minister because the latter status could rob him of the legitimacy and credentials he needed when he met his world counterparts.

The BJP was not persuaded by Vajpayee’s plea. He went ahead and did what his party wanted. The Bimstec meet was deferred to July 2004. Singh was by then the Prime Minister and took Vajpayee’s place at the summit.

There was a buzz that the Election Commission might announce the poll schedule when Singh was away. However, his aides scotched the speculation, saying the poll panel was fully aware of the prestige that a summit like the one in Myanmar held for the country’s Prime Minister and would do nothing to compromise that.

The media on board was armed with questions that had little to do with Bimstec and mostly concerned domestic travails, like the fate awaiting Rahul Gandhi’s anti-graft ordinances, the faux pas over the Lokpal search committee selections, etc. Singh did not show up and dispatched the accompanying minister, Khurshid.

The Prime Minister had his wife Gursharan Kaur, his daughter Upinder Singh and her husband Vijay Tankha with him.

Upinder, who teaches history at Delhi University, is said to have spent a long time at Nay Pyi Taw’s Uppatasanti Pagoda that houses a tooth of the Buddha which was offered by China when the monument was under construction.

Upinder’s most recent book, The Discovery of Ancient India, tells the country’s tale through the life histories of monuments. Her area of interest is epigraphy and she clicked several pictures of inscriptions engraved on the walls and pillars of the pagoda. She was in Myanmar last month too.