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India’s Foreign Minister Wins Hearts and Minds

By Shastri Ramachandaran* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) – If there is one leading light of the government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who struck the right notes, made the right moves and generally impressed observers and her audiences, it is, without doubt, External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.

She hit the ground running as it were: From keeping up the momentum in relations with the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations, following their leaders’ visits for Prime Minister Modi’s swearing in, the first foreign visit to Bhutan, to the fraught situation in Iraq and the evolving situation in Afghanistan, Swaraj has been on the go from Day One.

In addition, she presided over conclaves of Indian envoys in neighbouring countries to an agenda ably scripted by Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and managed a goodwill visit to Bangladesh in the course of which she charmed both Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Her most impressive performance, which drew applause at home and abroad – including from influential sections of Muslims and Islamic countries – was at the 30th All India Annual Haj Conference on June 23 in New Delhi.

Swaraj spoke in impeccable Urdu, and reached out to Muslims in a way that the BJP has never done in the past; and, she addressed issues and concerns that have been neglected by the Congress party, which suffered historic rout in the general election from April 7 to May 12, 2014.

She won over the congregation with the tone and tenor of her address and, when the Quran was recited, while everyone listened in devout silence, Swaraj covered her head with the ‘pallu’ (the loose end) of her sari, a sign of deference that did not go unnoticed by those cued into every subtle nuance which may reveal the attitude and thinking of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) towards the Muslims.

Yet this was no mere charm offensive.

She dealt with the issues of Haj pilgrims, which are many but may be prioritised as: one, getting Saudi Arabia to withdraw the 20 per cent cut in India’s quota for the annual pilgrimage; two, improving facilities for the pilgrims; and, three, preventing Air India from fleecing pilgrims with different fares from/for different destinations in India and also the government by claiming Rs 570 crore (about 10 million USD) as “subsidy” for the concessional fare which is only on paper.

On accommodation for pilgrims, she recalled that some decades ago, when Syed Shahabuddin was the Consul-General in Jeddah, there were at least 64 hotel-type guest houses (‘Rabbats’) in Saudi Arabia owned and run by erstwhile Indian ‘nawabs’ (rulers of princely states) for the use of Indian pilgrims.

All these mansions were demolished sometime between the 1960s and the 1980s and replaced by structures that came up under new development plans. While the owners of these ‘Rabatts’ in other countries were compensated and provided alternatives in lieu of the mansions razed, there is no record of any compensation paid to the Indian owners of these Rabatts. Swaraj said she would institute an enquiry into this and take it up with the Saudi authorities.

She also promised to consider their request for floating a global tender for the travel of the 170,000 pilgrims every year. Since they are legally bound to travel Air India (AI), the national carrier deprives them of a genuinely concessional fare and still pockets the “subsidy”. A global tender would enable such an assured number of travellers to fly at very low, competitive fares, eliminate the so-called subsidy and compel AI to adopt best fare practices.

In this initiative, Swaraj can count on civil aviation minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju to come up with a more than adequate response, given his commitment to make AI clean up its act. Should Swaraj and Raju succeed, they would have dared to go where the Congress never wanted tread.

*The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator. This article first appeared in DNA on July 1 with the headline ‘Swaraj’s moves: Lot more than mere charm offensive’. It is being reproduced by an arrangement with the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 2, 2014]

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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