Power Trips

Power Trips

They may seem like a working holiday, but covering a Prime Ministerial or Presidential visit overseas can be a physically and mentally exacting exercise for even the most hard-boiled journalist. But if you are lucky, you can squeeze out some fun and games during these trips too

By Nitish Chakravarty

Accompanying the president or the prime minister on overseas visits is perceived as the peak of a journalist’s professional career. It boosts his clout and helps him build contacts with rather inaccessible news sources in key positions. Small wonder a lot of pushing and shoving goes into finding a place in the prime minister’s and the president’s entourage. I have had occasion to travel to 30/32 countries worldwide, many of them as a member of the media team in our presidents’ and prime ministers’ entourage, over a two-decade long period. Destinations and routes varied but security clearance, check-in and boarding drills as well as aircraft configuration and decor on VVIP flights were of a pattern. Of course, the sounds and sights, the ambience and atmosphere differed from trip to trip.

The author (centre) with late president K.R. Narayanan on a cruise over the Bosphorus

These professional trips, sometimes called junkets, are not all play and no work. Covering a PM’s overseas visit keeps journalists on toes, and is often physically and mentally exacting. So much so that in spite of several visits to New York with our prime ministers and foreign ministers, I didn’t have time for a good peek at the sounds and sights of Times Square and the landmark New York Times building in the heart of Manhattan. I had time to saunter on Times Square, buy knickknacks and take pictures of the historic plaza only on a private visit.

The Prime Minister ritualistically gives a press conference midway through the journey, but much of what he says is drowned by the aircraft’s deafening drone

I recall a rare leisure opportunity when travelling in Turkey with President K.R. Narayanan. The president himself enjoyed revisiting Turkey where he had earlier been our ambassador. A delightful cruise with the president on the idyllic Bosphorus strait was the high point of the tour. Also visiting the ruins of three ancient civilisations on the outskirts of Izmir in south-western Turkey, was a welcome change from the routine of hard work. Perhaps touring abroad with President Zail Singh was more relaxing. He enjoyed sightseeing and informal interaction more than formal engagements. But I do not remember any of the prime ministers sparing time for pleasure and relaxation.

The memory of my first overseas journey with a VVIP is still fresh. It took no time to build a rapport with the ever smiling Air-India crew who were with us until the end of the week long trip. As we climbed up the ramp into Harshavardhana —sometimes some other plane but always called Air-India I—they greeted us with a smile and gave a hand to put our cabin bags in the proper place. Welcome drinks in hand, we exchanged pleasantries with co-passengers.

The jet engines were revving up, and within moments of the PM coming on board, the plane rolled towards the runway for take-off. I was peering at the receding landscape when the security staff handed out a slim book listing all those in the entourage as well as the names and telephone numbers of Indian missions in the countries the PM would visit. There was other useful information about the tour itinerary. I flipped through it to see where my name was printed. Then my eyes scanned the other pages.

Soon enough trolleys laden with a variety of hot and cold drinks and munchies arrived. Once the plane soared high, the captain came across to tell eager journalists all about the flight route, the flying time to destination, en route halts, if any, etc. I don’t know whether it was pure coincidence that at least on three trips with the PM the seat allotted to me was the same.

Often one or two senior officials in the entourage sauntered across to “the press enclosure”. All journalists huddled around to pick up info nuggets. If the U.S. was the destination, the officials would whisper about what to expect and what not. Some of them were candid; the cagey ones hummed and hawed but said little of news value.

High on the agenda of prime ministerial visits the world over is trade and commerce; talks with business leaders crowd their itinerary. Cultural and educational matters are usually the presidential goodwill visits’ focus. The president’s journeys to foreign lands do not hog media headlines as much as the PM’s do. Presidential tours are usually less tiring, leaving time and space for everyone to soak in the sounds and sights of the places visited and interact with local people. Even the bureaucrats accompanying the president are comparatively relaxed, and sometimes less taciturn. The president and the prime minister and their immediate family travel in a special suite equipped with beds. Senior officials occupy the section immediately behind.


May 2006

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