The Telegraph
Sunday , October 25 , 2015

Goof-up jitters as Delhi readies to host Africa 40

New Delhi, Oct. 24: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the middle of his Hindi address to a 55,000-strong Indian-origin audience in San Jose on September 27 when the English translation for a dozen American legislators at the venue suddenly stopped, unannounced.

Modi went on speaking even as a message declaring a "break in translation" flashed on a digital display board inside the SAP arena.

As Indian officials scrambled to find out what had gone wrong, they discovered that their own colleagues had pressured the translators - travelling with Modi - to rush to the Prime Minister's plane early, so that it could depart for New York quickly after the speech.

Modi was to meet US President Barack Obama early the next morning in New York.

Nearly a month later, it is such incidents - unreported till now - that are haunting sections of India's foreign office as it prepares to host at least 40 heads of state and government from Africa in New Delhi's biggest international gathering in three decades, beginning tomorrow.

From the capital's diplomatic enclave in Chanakyapuri to the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium some 8km away, New Delhi's roundabouts have been circled with flags from India and 54 African countries invited to the summit.

On Sunday morning, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal will officially rename the Rose Garden that lines Chanakyapuri's Africa Avenue as the "India Africa Friendship Rose Garden".

But goof-ups in protocol or translations that have slipped in unexpectedly into recent events have left officials jittery, as they fine-tune preparations for the summit that will culminate with a declaration by Modi and the other heads of government or state here on Thursday.

Some veteran diplomats have, however, cautioned that the focus on ensuring a glitch-free summit risks distracting from the outcome.

"We need to be careful to not focus too much on the process, on the bandobast, on things like making sure every carpet is spotless," former diplomat Kishan Rana, who was part of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's office leading up to the 1983 Commonwealth and Non-Aligned Movement summits, had told The Telegraph in August. "The outcome is more important than the process, and that's something we at times seem to forget."

But Modi made clear his own emphasis on wowing guests with a combination of glitz, glamour and scale, when he put former foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin in charge of these preparations for the summit earlier this year.

Since then, three Indian diplomats have independently confirmed to this newspaper that foreign secretary S. Jaishankar has told senior officials that a successful Africa summit would be his single biggest achievement in 2015.

Under Akbaruddin, known within diplomatic circles as a workaholic, a team of young diplomats has mapped the routes from the five hotels, where the visiting leaders will stay, to the venue, the Indira Gandhi stadium.

Urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu, junior foreign minister V.K. Singh and Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung have visited the venue, adding political heft to Akbaruddin's attempts at convincing other government arms to cooperate.

Camels will greet the guests at Rashtrapati Bhavan, and a fusion of Indian and African music and dance will mark the start of the plenary of the summit.

The ministry of external affairs has leased 55 Mercedes Benz E-class cars for the visiting leaders, while junior diplomats summoned back to New Delhi from multiple missions are receiving last-minute tips on how to accompany these leaders.

But the best preparations can come unstuck, and rigid plans can at times backfire, as the foreign office discovered in August when Modi hosted leaders from 14 small Pacific Island nations.

On more than one occasion, those accompanying the guests misidentified the leaders, and an official here described the behind-the-scenes handling of that summit as "chaotic".

In Jaipur, where Modi hosted the main summit, accredited journalists from the Pacific Island nations at the authorised media centre were left flummoxed, then frustrated, as the video feed from the plenary session was put on mute after the Indian Prime Minister's speech. They had travelled over 12,000km, in some cases, to hear their leaders, but couldn't until protests forced the foreign office to bring back the volume on the feed.

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