Prime Minister Minister Manmohan Singh is a reluctant traveller. He never takes a night flight, doesn’t want elaborate meals, and prefers reading on board unlike his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had a taste for golden fried prawns and Bollywood movies while in the air. But that hasn’t kept the good doctor from racking up an impressive record of foreign trips.
Singh has surpassed Vajpayee and many other former prime ministers, earning the tag of “non- resident Prime Minister” with over 70 foreign trips and nearly Rs 650 crore spent on his travel since 2004, when he was sworn in as Prime Minister for the first time. In his second term, Singh has already made 36 foreign tours and embarked on 37th on Sunday, leaving on a five- day visit to Russia and China.
No less than 15 of Singh’s 36 UPA II foreign visits have been made when Parliament was in session. In fact, the Prime Minister has been out for a few or more days during nine of the 14 Parliament sessions of the last four years. More trips, including one to the United Arab Emirates, are in the offing before the 2014 elections.
The list of Singh’s visits shows the highest expenditure of Rs 26.94 crore during his seven- day visit to Mexico and Brazil in 2012 to attend G20 and Rio+ 20 Summit. This is followed by Rs 22.7 crore spent on travel to the USA and Brazil in 2010, when he had gone to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, BRIC Summit and IBSA Summit.
In contrast, Vajpayee made 35 foreign trips during his tenure as Prime Minister from 1999- 2004 at a cost of Rs 185 crore to the state exchequer.
This itinerant attitude has less to do with the taxpayer’s money and more with what these visits yield. Singh’s foreign visits have yielded only limited gains for Indian diplomacy. Take the case of his recent trip to the US. While his meeting with President Barack Obama was merely a formality, his meeting with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, too, failed to address India’s concerns on terrorism. Back home, his diminishing clout became international news when Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi publicly trashed as “ nonsense” an ordinance on convicted lawmakers that had the Singh’s approval.
In his two tenures, the Prime Minister’s preferred destination has been the US, where he has travelled 10 times for bilateral meetings with Obama and for the UN General Assembly and the nuclear security summit. Russia has been visited nine times in as many years by Singh.
Incidentally, Singh has been able to visit only a few countries in the neighbourhood despite India’s growing interest and engagement in the region.
The Prime Minister’s foreign tours are warranted as India’s global engagement has grown over the years. His critics, however, blame him for being away when important decisions are being taken in Parliament and even when the country is facing a domestic crisis.
“The Prime Minister has violated a time- tested tradition by going abroad when Parliament is in session. Nehruji, Indira Gandhi, Vajpayee all respected this tradition and didn’t go abroad when Parliament was in session,” senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad told Mail Today.
“He has mismanaged the country and wants to run away to foreign countries because he has nothing to say,” he added.
Singh continues to defy the convention that the Prime Minister will lead the treasury benches in Parliament. His predecessors often skipped foreign tours to be present in Parliament. For instance, in the aftermath of Gujarat riots, Vajpayee skipped the Commonwealth summit and sent his foreign minister Yashwant Sinha to Australia.
Defending the PM’s itinerary, his communication advisor Pankaj Pachauri said: “ Trips are planned months in advance and the prime minister does not run away from his domestic responsibility.
Certainly you have to be at G- 20 and at UN and other important forums and his trips have added to India’s diplomatic clout. It is not that the PM has ignored issues back home. The PM attends Parliament regularly.” Asked why the PM is missing on most critical occasions, like the Coalgate debate in Parliament, he said: “ If something unforeseen happens, we cannot renege on our international commitments.”