Hope of dividends from new President’s global connections
Washington, July 25: Six months from his swearing-in as President, the first reward for Pranab Mukherjee’s long association with India’s external relations will reach Calcutta with a two-pronged outreach to the city from his American counterpart Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago.
The Chicago Children’s Choir, an Emmy Award-winning multi-racial, multi-cultural choral music group of children aged 8 to 18 will perform in Calcutta in late January or early February 2013 in what could be the beginning of a chain of events that may eventually bring Obama to Calcutta during his next visit to India if he is re-elected in November.
The choir will travel to Calcutta along with some of Chicago’s top businessmen in an effort to get Bengal to open up for economic relations with Obama’s hometown. “It is essential that we showcase everything that Chicago has to offer to the world,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel, until recently Obama’s chief of staff, said in a media release.
Bengal was not originally on the group’s plans for India and it was working on the beaten paths for both businessmen and cultural ambassadors by choosing Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai in addition to Jaipur.
Then Mukherjee arrived in Chicago earlier this year on a whirlwind visit for events associated with the 150th birth anniversaries of Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore. Many Chicagoans were impressed that the then finance minister, who had the reputation as the busiest member of the UPA cabinet, travelled half way round the globe to be in their city for just 24 hours.
Chicago has consistently honoured Swami Vivekananda in a variety of ways for his famous address to the Parliament of World Religions 119 years ago.
Since Mukherjee’s visit, travel plans for the choir and the business group which will go to India under the umbrella of World Business Chicago, have been recast and it is still work in progress.
It may have helped in rescheduling this itinerary that India’s consul-general in Chicago, Mukta Dutta Tomar is a Bengali, but this could not be confirmed because Tomar is out of the country and, therefore, unavailable for a comment.
The Chicago group’s proposed trip to Calcutta is an example of how President Mukherjee is now expected to dip into his vast reservoir of international contacts in a new role of how his connections can be tapped for enhancing the country’s larger profile.
Initiatives such as this will be non-controversial and will not exceed the mandate of a non-executive head of state, but will enable Mukherjee at the same time to create what could be his legacy at the end of four decades of active political life.
In South Block, discreet enquiries are already being made by several ambassadors from Chanakyapuri whether the new President will be open to foreign travel. These enquiries are said to reflect a desire among his numerous former counterparts in various countries who have become his friends over the years.
The enthusiasm in foreign capitals for President Mukherjee has to be weighed against the bitter disappointments that were routinely experienced during visits abroad by his predecessor, Pratibha Patil, in the last five years.
Officials who accompanied Patil on her trips abroad often lamented that she had little to contribute during her meetings with foreign leaders or by way of any vision in India’s engagement of the world.
Her travel to China two years ago, for example, was full of potential because it was the first trip by an Indian head of state to Beijing in a decade. But during preparations for her travel, when Patil was asked whom she would like to meet during her stay in China, she answered that she wanted to meet everyone whom K.R. Narayanan had met during his state visit as President.
Indian diplomats could only stare at her in disbelief because Narayanan was a class apart in China because of his long and deep association with that country. He was held in special regard by the Chinese leadership as the first Indian ambassador posted in Beijing after the 1962 border war.
As a contrast to Patil, a Canadian diplomat recalled yesterday that when a minister from Ottawa met Mukherjee recently, the finance minister talked about some Indo-Canadian projects in the 1960s which Mukherjee dealt with during his very first year as a minister under Indira Gandhi. The Canadians had no clue about these projects that Mukherjee had personally handled several decades ago.
President Mukherjee is unlikely to travel abroad unless he is convinced that there are definite gains that will accrue from a presidential visit, according to those who know his mind. For one thing, unlike Patil, Mukherjee has travelled the world during his long years as a minister dealing in portfolios with a high foreign content.