Monday, 30th October 2017

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Kabali spell endures

Malaysia PM's Chennai wish

By K.P. Nayar in Chennai
  • Published 29.03.17

Chennai, March 28: When foreign heads of state or government land in Chennai, what are their priorities? Meeting the chief minister? Meeting the governor, even one with additional charge from Maharashtra, as at present? Meeting M. Karunanidhi, the tallest living Tamil politician?

None of these. For Malaysia's Prime Minister Dato' Sri Mohammad Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak, who arrives here on Thursday on a two-day visit before going to New Delhi to break bread with his counterpart Narendra Modi, the ultimate priority is meeting Tamil actor Rajinikanth.

Najib Razak, as the Prime Minister is commonly known, and his wife Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor have put in a request for meeting the actor whose 2016 blockbuster Kabali was shot almost entirely in Malaysia with only a few scenes in Chennai, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Malaysia's first couple became Rajinikanth fans during the actor's long stay in Malacca for the production of Kabali.

But the Tamil icon, whose Malaysia-shot film was a huge box office hit, is acting coy. He has not yet agreed to Kuala Lumpur's request. Hopeful of a confirmation from Rajinikanth in the next two days, Malaysian diplomats in Chennai have kept a slot free on the first couple's itinerary on Friday morning, according to a minute-to-minute programme of the VVIP visitors shown to The Telegraph.

Najib Razak and Rosmah Mansor are die-hard Indian cinema buffs who spend a lot of their leisure time watching Hindi, Tamil and other Indian language films. Nearly a decade ago, Shah Rukh Khan was awarded the title of "Dato", which is broadly equivalent to India's Padma award or the New Year's Honours in the UK.

Three days ago, in a bid to incentivise Rajinikanth to meet Najib Razak and Rosmah Mansor, Malaysia's tourism and culture minister Dato Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz proposed in the Dewan Rakyat - lower House of Parliament - that Malacca should replace Shah Rukh and appoint Rajinikanth as the state's tourism ambassador.

For this VVIP visit, the next 48 hours are crucial. If Rajinikanth meets the first couple, it will be a good augury for Najib Razak's five-day India trip.

In Chennai, the Malaysian Prime Minister will take a leaf out of Modi's book: on Friday, he will address Malaysians living in India, just as Modi addresses Indians abroad on most of his foreign visits. However, Malaysia's population being small, the gathering in Chennai is unlikely to gross 10,000 non-resident Malaysians.

Most of those travelling to this city from all over India for a meeting with Najib Razak will be Malaysian students studying in Indian universities. Medicine is a popular stream among Malaysians seeking higher education in this country: it is estimated that there are 5,000 plus such medical students across India who want to meet their Prime Minister.

Accompanying Najib Razak to Chennai will be Dato' Sri S. Subramaniam, Malaysia's health minister along with the long-time leader of Malaysian Tamils, Dato' Sri Samy Vellu. Subramaniam, a dermatologist by profession, is also President of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Samy Vellu is now the Prime Minister's special envoy to India and South Asia.

General elections are due in Malaysia in 2018, but there is speculation that Najib Razak may call snap polls any time this year. The Malaysian Indian Congress is part of the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, which roughly translates as the National Front.

Najib Razak's party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is the leading partner in Barisan Nasional. But the MIC, which is dominated by Malaysians of Tamil origin, has been losing ground in elections.

By making Chennai his first stop on his five-day visit, accompanied by MIC leaders, Najib Razak hopes to get some electoral advantage if he calls snap elections soon. Many Tamils in Malaysia are Muslims who have now formed a party on religious lines, the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress, after breaking away from the MIC.

Najib Razak hopes to woo them as well during his India visit. He has told Malaysian diplomats in Chennai that he wants to offer Friday prayers at a mosque in the southern city before leaving for New Delhi.

In the national capital during the weekend, some 15 deals ranging from airport construction to smart city infrastructure will be waiting to be signed either by Modi and Najib Razak or by respective ministers or senior officials in their presence. One of them will lead to the creation of the first chair in ayurveda at the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman when this Malaysian university enters into a memorandum of understanding with the National Institute of Ayurveda in Jaipur.

Modi and Najib Razak will explore the possibility of India buying MiG-29 planes which have been decommissioned by the Malaysian Air Force following their purchase of Su-30s. The "techno-commercial viability" of how India can use these MiG-29s by cannibalising them for parts or by upgrading them will be studied after the two Prime Ministers approve the idea.

On Sunday, Najib Razak will travel to Jaipur where bids will be initiated by Malaysian companies for seven road projects in Rajasthan. Monday, the last day of the prime ministerial visit, will be taken up entirely by business interactions between the two sides.