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A visit that almost wasn't

By Saisuresh Sivaswamy in Paris
September 13, 2005 12:08 IST
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There will be many sighs of relief as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emplanes for New York City on Tuesday, but the biggest sigh, it can be safely assumed, will be from the Indian embassy officials.

For this was a visit that could have gone awry at many points in time.

No wonder, when asked if he was happy at the prime minister's visit, Ambassador T C A Rangachari told that he would be happiest on Tuesday, "when the whole thing is over."

Officials associated with prime ministerial visits talk of the enormous logistical exercise that goes on behind the scenes some three months before the visit actually takes place.

In the present case, however, the luxury of time was simply not there.

The decision over the prime minister's visit came through just three weeks ahead of the date, revealed officials involved in the execution.

"We think the decision was taken post the July visit to Washington, DC, when the nuclear issue was suddenly thrown up. India realized it had to marshall its allies to get the measure through, and the French visit must have come up then," they said.

Further, it was only weeks since the previous ambassador, Dilip Lahiri, retired, and Paris had been without one for some 10 days before the incumbent, who was India's envoy to Germany, was sent here. Rangachari is yet to present his credentials, and thus is not officially in his post as yet.

If the host government wants to act tough it could, but in this case with France being our ally, and also since they know this is only a procedural thing, it does not pose any real problem, officials said.

A three-week notice, and a new ambassador -- if either fact did not derail the visit, it owes to India's much-maligned bureaucracy.

"There is a drill involved with the whole thing, and roles are clearly marked, so the process just goes on autopilot. Plus we have daily reviews, and then there is the review with the headquarters in Delhi, so there is constant monitoring of the progress. Nothing can really go wrong," another official said.

That, however, does not rule out the external problems. For one, this happens to be heavy-tourist season when hotels have little room to spare.

"There were problems on this front, yes. We wanted some 70 rooms for the prime minister's delegation, whereas the hotel could spare only 40. And it is not like we can go ahead and finalise them on our own, we kept a few options ready to show the advance team that came in from Delhi a couple of days ago," said one source.

Finally, with a little help from the French foreign ministry, Hotel Ritz was finalized -- on Saturday, a day ahead of the visit.

With the media hotel, there were problems of another kind. The number of presspersons was not known till almost the last minute. "Say, we book 40 rooms and only 30 are taken, we will still have to pay for the 10 extra rooms," the source said. Even within this number, some rooms are single occupancy while others are double occupancy, so there is no getting a fix on the correct number.

Then there are other logistical to-dos, like getting high-speed lines, getting an NDTV connection in the hotel for the visit's duration, or just arranging for so many computers, all of which costs money and takes time. "If the media is unhappy with the arrangements, you know what that will mean, so we can't take any chances here," said one official.

Then, of course, there is the problem of coordinating everyone's time, making separate arrangements for the electronic media, food and beverages. . . the list is quite endless.

"But, as I said, it is a problem only the first time you do it. After that, you know the drill, what needs to be done and what needs care. It just goes smoothly after that," the official added.

In this case, there was little by way of precedent, since the previous prime ministerial visit to France was seven years ago. "It was a first time for most of us, but we knew that nothing can really go wrong, the system takes care of it," the official said.

Another young embassy staffer who had been working round-the-clock said she was looking forward to the prime minister's departure on Tuesday, after which she would simply become invisible.

"I need it, yaar!" she said, and one cannot help thinking she is not the only one who needs it.

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy in Paris