It will be ‘focus South Asia’ for the Union Ministry of External Affairs in 2013, with bilateral visits to be made to all the neighbourhood capitals, even as Bhutan has once again been accorded the honour of being the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations.
The Himalayan kingdom-turned-Parliamentary democracy’s young monarch Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck will follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as the chief guest for the R-D function. In fact, it is the fourth time in the last 61 years that the tiny nation has been accorded the honour.
According to sources in the MEA, the Centre had made tentative approaches to a number of other countries to be the chief guest, but the dates did not work out. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said had been a serious candidate at one-time, but the reclusive monarch was unable to come up with a suitable schedule.
Similarly, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was also approached, but he could confirm his availability owing to indifferent health.
The chief guest for the Republic Day function, who is decided on the basis of the country’s strategic interests, also shows that New Delhi will be focusing on South Asia, with plans to reach out to other nations in India’s backyard, according to sources. Officials pointed out that External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, whose maiden overseas trip was to neighbouring Myanmar since taking over the ministry, will also be travelling to Thimpu in January.
Also, Khurshid will be co-chairing a joint commission with his Sri Lankan counterpart G L Peiris here in January. Bhutan is of key importance to India, due to its strategic location on the Himalayas bordering the Tibetan plateau with China. It has also become an important source for electricity, with India sponsoring the construction of major hydroelectric dams in the country--which has now become its main source for revenue, along with tourism.
Recently, the Bhutanese monarch had conferred the Himalayan nation’s top honour--the Royal Order of Bhutan called Druk Thuksey--on outgoing Indian envoy Pavan Varma and two other Indian envoys, Salman Haidar and Dalip Mehta.
Khurshid may also visit Bangladesh “at the earliest”, with indications that he could make the trip to Dhaka in February.
Incidentally, Khurshid is also expected to make a rare trip to Latin America in February, when he will visit Argentina, Colombia and Chile. His predecessor, S M Krishna had been to Cuba in June. Prior to that, the last visit undertaken by an External Affairs Minister to the region was to Brazil in 2009.
“Khurshid had been in charge of Latin America and Africa when he was Minister of State, so he understands the importance of that place,” said a senior MEA official.
Sources said that while the minister may not be travelling to all the South Asian capitals, Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai will be filling in the gaps.
“The Foreign Secretary will visit the countries that the minister will not travel in the neighbourhood,” said an official.
Pakistan is a likely candidate, as Krishna had visited Islamabad a few weeks before he stepped down. So, it is the turn of Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani-Khar to visit New Delhi. Instead, Mathai may be travelling in a few months when the current round of meetings end to review the composite dialogue process.