In February 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had taken the proverbial horse to the water and also made it drink. He issued a directive to all ministries to start using video conferencing technology whenever possible, and avoid unnecessary travel time and costs.
Five years later on 30 March, the prime minister held a video conference with India’s 130 diplomatic missions across the world on COVID-19. He also hosted a meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) heads on a video link.
Technology over avoidable travel has by now become a norm rather than an exception for the Central government ministers and officials. The prime minister himself has travelled extensively, but it has to do with India's aggressive diplomatic push globally. Besides, the prime minister has often hopped across three countries in two continents for work on a single day even in his late sixties, using flying hours to catch forty winks on the plane.
So, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi wrote to him recently suggesting all foreign travel of the president, prime minister, Union ministers, chief ministers, state ministers and bureaucrats must be suspended in view of the coronavirus outbreak unless in for exigencies in the national interest, she was demanding to whip into motion an already galloping horse.
The number of foreign visits by ministries and departments under the Government of India has dipped from 2,283 in 2017 to 1,936 in 2018, and to 1,806 in 2019.
Topmost bureaucrats are travelling less. For example, from 2017 to 2019, visits abroad by director-level officials have reduced from 477 to 355 and by joint secretary-level officials from 478 to 391.
Insiders say this could be achieved because of the prime minister’s vision to cut down on the culture of using these foreign visits as personal tours, as was the norm. The prime minister has underlined the use of technology as far as possible for meetings via teleconference and video conference. Modi approves of travel abroad only when absolutely necessary.
The Ministry of Finance had issued detailed guidelines in 2016 for processing foreign visits. It involves approvals through the Screening Committee of Secretaries, uploading data on foreign visits on the Foreign Visit Management System (FVMS), preparation of a Quarterly Rolling Plan (QRP) to optimise the outcome of foreign visits and restricts going on more than four official visits abroad in a year.
Interestingly, while the Opposition, especially the Congress, has harped on Modi’s packed diplomatic calendar, his predecessor Manmohan Singh was reportedly not much behind either in the number of trips or spending. While Singh made 38 foreign trips during his second term (2009-14), spending roughly Rs 1,346 crore, Modi in his first term till 2018 end made 48 visits costing about Rs 2,021 crore.
Right after coming to power in 2014, Modi ended another long legacy of junketeering, that by journalists who freeloaded on the prime minister’s foreign trips and wasted crores of taxpayers’ money. While this made him a little more unpopular with the media which enjoyed patronage from the old Establishment, the prime minister was clear in his reasoning.
He reportedly opposed it on three counts. First, in the new age of technology, journalists could easily access information remotely and didn’t need to travel with the prime minister for that. Second, the same journalists from the same big outlets were going again and again. In small newspapers, the proprietors grabbed the junkets. Third, selecting 30-32 journalists for prime minister’s foreign trips was unfair for hundreds of others.
That aside, Modi’s trips are not junkets; these are maniacally packed with work, meetings, deals, and brand-building for India. The rigour and impact of his high-octane diplomacy are visible in the results. An example is how the world, including Muslim nations, sided with India through its most drastic punitive steps against Pakistan – whether it was the surgical strike after the terror attack on the Uri base or the reprisal airstrikes at Balakot after the Pulwama attack.
Nations stood by India after it scrapped special status for Kashmir or dug its heels against China at Doklam. Diplomatic trips paid off in shoring up FDI as well, with a record $64.37 billion in 2018-19.
India has been able to regain or maintain its influence in its immediate neighbourhood of Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan, meet China’s aggression by making friends around the Indian Ocean.
All this would not have been possible without physically meeting the leaders and simultaneously firing up government-to-government communication lines through technology. In this context, bang for the buck would be an undiplomatic but apt expression.
Updated Date: Apr 09, 2020 08:52:48 IST