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PM’s foreign visits may be a record of sorts

Prime Minister Narendra Modi this month will be undertaking one of the longest ever abroad visits by an Indian head of government in recent times. He is scheduled to be on a nine-day, three-nation visit to Myanmar, Australia and Fiji from November 11 to 19. Later in the month, he will be in Nepal to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit on November 26-27.

The external affairs ministry does not want to make public specific details, as yet, of the PM’s travel plans. Sources in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the PM is likely to be out of India for at least 11 days in November.

The PM, by the end of his first six months in office on November 26-27, will have spent a record 29 to 30 days abroad. Only his immediate predecessor, Manmohan Singh, comes close to Modi’s record but that is in his second stint, after the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, when the Congress returned to power with more seats. Singh had then spent 29 days abroad between May-end to November-end 2009.

Even Singh couldn’t manage as many as 12 days outside India in a month and within the first 200 days of either of his two tenures. The pulls and pressures of coalition politics of the past two decades, which needed constant firefighting, ensured prime ministers like P V Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook fewer and shorter visits abroad, particularly in the first six months in office.

V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral headed minority governments and barely lasted a year or less in the prime minister’s chair.

Predecessors like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Morarji Desai had sufficient majorities in the Lok Sabha. But all, including Rajiv, were prime ministers in an era where occasions for foreign travel for heads of governments were comparatively fewer because of the absence of so many multilateral summits – like BRICS, IBSA Dialogue Forum (India, Brazil, South Africa), East Asia Summit, etc – which have taken birth after 1990.

Off the cuff, the only longer foreign sojourns that old timers could recall were Nehru’s famous visit to Bhutan on foot and horseback in 1958 and when Indira Gandhi travelled to Western capitals before the 1971 Bangladesh war. Both Singh and Vajpayee did clock eight to 10 days outside India at a single stretch when travelling to the US to attend UN General Assembly sessions.

Modi, since taking his oath of office on May 26, has in terms of sheer numbers undertaken many more multilateral and bilateral foreign visits than any other PM in the history of independent India. Modi has paid bilateral visits to Bhutan, Nepal and Japan. He has been to the US to attend the UN General Assembly, as also a bilateral visit to that country, and to Brazil for the BRICS Summit.

The PM will be in Myanmar on November 11-13 for the East Asia Summit. He will then travel to Brisbane in Australia to attend the G20 Summit on November 15-16. He will be in Sydney to address the Indian diaspora on November 17, and in Canberra for discussions with his Australian counterpart on November 18. He is likely to be in Fiji on November 19. Thirty-eight per cent of the population of this Indian Ocean archipelago are descendents of indentured labourers taken from modern Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the late 19th century.

Surprisingly, Rajiv Gandhi, the last Indian PM to command a majority in the Lok Sabha, wasn’t a frequent traveller during his first six months in office. The elections were held in December-end 1984. Rajiv visited Moscow, Dhaka, Washington DC and Geneva in the first six months of office. The visit to Moscow was to pay his last respects to Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985. He paid an emergency visit to Dhaka along with Sri Lankan president J R Jayawardene in June. Rajiv’s first official visit was to the US in mid-June, from where he also travelled to Geneva.

Similarly, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, beset with coalition pressures, travelled little, at least in the first six months of his three tenures as prime minister.

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