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Big challenge: pakodas to protocol

New Delhi, May 24: Three heads of state and five heads of government have confirmed their presence at Narendra Modi’s Monday swearing-in, leaving officials grappling with the complexities of security, protocol and menu and worried about the weather.

The security detail for the ceremony, to be hosted on the open forecourt at Rashtrapati Bhavan, has gone up several notches after Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif confirmed his attendance a day after an attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan.

Sharif’s flight will be touching down in New Delhi on Monday. His announcement was immediately slammed by the far Right in Pakistan. Hafeez Sayeed, wanted in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, asked Sharif to review his decision.

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi too have confirmed their presence at the ceremony, to be held from 6pm when the 40 degree-plus mid-summer heat may ease a little. There’s, however, a possibility of rain in the evening.

The VVIP presence at Monday’s oath-taking and the bilateral meetings scheduled on Tuesday are essentially for optics. The meetings begin at 10am and continue through the day, with each visiting dignitary allotted 30 minutes.

Diplomats are working more on the photo opportunities and on synchronising the VVIP movements than on preparing to-do lists for the specific dialogues.

Tariq Azeem, special assistant to Sharif, admitted as much. “Don’t expect discussions on any big issues,” he said. But optics are important too, diplomats insist.

“It’s upon the leaders to lead their countries and people to peace and conciliation,” Sharif’s daughter Maryam had tweeted yesterday.

She has followed it up with another tweet: “Aggression is easy to start but difficult to end… Brutality & force are tools of the immoral…#pakindiarelations.”

Mohammad Badar Alam, Karachi-based editor of The Herald magazine, said: “It will be a brief trip, with no journalists accompanying the PM.”

He added: “The foreign office here does not expect any formal dialogue or meetings on any of the outstanding issues. But officials here see it as a goodwill gesture which may help the resumption/continuity of dialogue in the future.”

The three heads of state — Pranab Mukherjee, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai — will have pride of place at the swearing-in, followed by the Prime Ministers of Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives, Mauritius and Bhutan. Bangladesh will send the Speaker of its parliament, Shirin Chaudhury.

Chaudhury and Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay are scheduled to arrive tomorrow. Apart from the VVIPs, there will be 2,500-odd guests at the swearing-in.

Indian envoys Rajeev Shahare (Maldives), Gautam Bambawale (Bhutan), deputy high commissioner Gopal Baglay (Pakistan), Y.K. Sinha (Sri Lanka), Amar Sinha (Afghanistan), Pankaj Saran (Bangladesh) and Anup Kumar Mudgal (Mauritius) have also been called.

They are expected to be part of the delegations accompanying Modi and his yet-unnamed external affairs minister during Tuesday’s bilateral talks.

South Block has drafted its master organiser, former chief of protocol Ruchira Kamboj, who is now posted in Paris as India’s envoy at Unesco, to assist the incumbent Pradeep Rawat in organising the ceremony without slip-ups.

Kamboj, a veteran of such events, handled to perfection almost 250 VVIP visits to India with a lean and efficient team of 50-odd officials during her tenure.

All the guests have been asked to be at the venue at least two hours in advance. Offices at Raisina Hill will shut down by 1pm for security reasons.

One of the officials’ biggest challenges is to find the “perfect” menu that will accommodate the varying tastes of the VVIP guests. With Modi being a vegetarian, special thought needs to be given to the greens, officials said.

The tradition at prime ministerial swearing-ins is to offer a fare of vegetarian and non-vegetarian snacks — samosas, pakodas, sandwiches and gulab jamuns rubbing shoulders with chicken tikka and chicken cutlets. The menu will be decided tomorrow, officials said.

Sources said the foreign dignitaries would be gifted handicrafts from Gujarat.

Rashtrapati Bhavan sources said the President had asked his staff to “prepare for a grand ceremony”.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee had used the Rastrapati Bhavan forecourt for his oath-taking in 1996 and 1998. So had Chandra Shekhar in 1990.

The other places at the President’s House where Prime Ministers are sworn in are the Durbar Hall and the Ashoka Hall.