New Delhi, July 28: When Manmohan Singh leaves on his first foreign trip since becoming Prime Minister tomorrow, not the entire cabinet — nor even half of it — is expected to see him off. With or without bouquets.
A day ahead of his departure for a summit in Bangkok, the Prime Minister issued a communique asking his ministers not to turn up at the airbase from where he leaves and where he will be landing two days later.
In keeping with protocol, only the three service chiefs will be present when he takes off in the morning. Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said the written communication was necessary as a verbal directive would have gone unheeded in a political establishment used to lining up at any time of the day and night, giant bouquets or garlands in hand, with a grin of obeisance pasted on their lips whenever the head of government stepped on a plane.
Observers said the move — the first of its kind — was “in keeping with the man’s understated personality”. Earlier, the Prime Minister had issued an order to restrict the use of his picture in government advertisements.
The send-off and welcome ritual has thus far been seen as a manifestation of the allegiance the head of government commands within the administration and the party. It began in Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. A veteran journalist from the Nehru era remembered that much as independent India’s first Prime Minister resented the practice, he did little to discourage it.
It touched a high in Indira Gandhi’s time. Ministers congregated to see her off even when she travelled within the country. The rush became so unmanageable her protocol officers finally insisted on issuing passes, hoping to cut the queue of followers. But apparently it did not work because the scramble only got harder to get the coveted card which symbolised “loyalty” of the Congress brand.
The practice continued during her son Rajiv Gandhi’s rule. Observers of the Rajiv era said the show of allegiance was demonstrated not just during his foreign trips but even within the capital. Each time he left his residence for, say, his office or Parliament, crowds of cabinet ministers and party functionaries would gather to cheer him.
Once the dynasty stranglehold broke and P.V. Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister, there was a palpable change in the way the ritual panned out, recalled observers. “The crowds would be there only when he went abroad. Actually it will be wrong to say crowds, only cabinet ministers would be present,” one of them said.
Singh’s immediate predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s departures and arrivals were always well attended. Whatever may be the state of the Indian tradition of touching an elder’s feet in the rest of the country, it was alive and kicking at such times.
These occasions were also keenly watched, with as much hawk-eyed interest as the moves of Soviet leaders in the Cold War era and of their Chinese counterparts, for signals in the BJP and the Sangh. The curiosity, however, was singleminded: Would Lal Krishna Advani’s followers be in attendance'
Not only was Advani always there, so were the others.
With Manmohan Singh’s decision, signal-watchers — in the Congress and outside — will become unemployed. But then they can always keep their eyes peeled on smoke patterns wafting out of 10 Janpath, Sonia Gandhi’s residence.