The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Focus on foreign trip fetters

New Delhi, June 26: The frequency and arbitrary manner in which foreign trips of senior politicians are being struck down has focused attention on the archaic rules governing official travel abroad.

The Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh chief ministers are the biggest names to suffer on account of these rules. Ashok Gehlot was denied permission to travel to the US in his official capacity for a function organised by expatriate Rajasthanis. Though his travel plans were later cleared, Gehlot says he has still not been formally informed.

Digvijay Singh was denied permission to visit Canada for a Dalit conference, but was allowed to go to the US. Both chief ministers belong to the Congress and are in charge of election-bound states.

“Political clearance from the foreign ministry is required to ensure that there is a uniform foreign policy despite there being different political parties at the Centre and states,” says S.K. Singh, former foreign secretary.

He says this is done to prevent politicians from speaking in different voices on sensitive issues when they travel abroad.

According to current rules, Union ministers, chief ministers, bureaucrats and senior politicians require central clearance for an official trip abroad. Anyone holding public office, including government officials, need approval even if they are proceeding on a private trip abroad.

Private trips which do not require government funding are cleared quickly and without much fuss. But it is more difficult to get political clearance when a politician or a bureaucrat makes an official trip.

The procedure is a hangover from the days of the Raj. Applications made to the Prime Minister’s Office are forwarded to the foreign ministry.

A former foreign secretary recounts how he had turned down then Punjab chief minister Partap Singh Kairon’s request to lead a Sikh jatha to Pakistan. He says he was summoned by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and made to change his decision in Kairon’s presence.

“The incident is an example of how flexible our stand was, especially when dealing with chief ministers or Opposition leaders of stature,” the former diplomat said. “What is missing now is that flexibility and respect,” he adds.

It is being increasingly felt that while the Centre can continue to regulate the official travel of those who fall under its purview, it should keep away from matters relating to state governments.

Some observers say unless there is more “flexibility” and the Centre gives up its “fascist” attitude towards chief ministers’ foreign travel, it could adversely affect India’s federal structure.

With more and more states wooing foreign investment, “arbitrary” rejection of foreign trips may lead to speculation that the Centre is favouring some states. “If this continues to happen, it may have a serious effect on India’s federalism,” a former foreign secretary said.

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