G20: Welcome Guests

There is no doubt that a specific protocol practice would have been put in place to receive the Heads of State and Government who are visiting India to take part for the G20 summit
G20: Welcome Guests
GK Photo

All countries adopt a protocol for receiving high level dignitaries on their arrival for bilateral visits and also for participation in multilateral conferences. In India, till Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi changed the protocol practice, Heads of States and Governments were received, with all due ceremony by their Indian counterparts at Palam airport in Delhi on official or state visits. Rajiv Gandhi brought the reception protocol in line with the practice pursued by most advanced countries and did away with a ceremonial welcome at the airport. The venue was shifted to the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan where the President and/or Prime Minister formally welcomed the guest; the reception at the Palam airport was by a designated minister. This practice has continued ever since though it does not prevent a special gesture being shown on some occasions when the Prime Minister personally receives a guest at Palam airport.

For multilateral conferences, prior to the changes introduced by Rajiv Gandhi, Heads of State and Governments were also received by high Indian dignitaries at Palam airport but for each such event specific practices were also evolved. These also took into account the hour of arrival of the dignitary. And, a list of Indian dignitaries was prepared to receive the high-level participants. Naturally, it could not be expected that the burden of receiving the guests would fall only on one Indian leader. There is no doubt that a specific protocol practice would have been put in place to receive the Heads of State and Government who are visiting India to take part for the G20 summit.

I was reminded of these protocol reception practices because I was ‘roped in’ for protocol receptions at the Palam airport for the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) summit and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) both of which were held in 1983. I was then a junior officer in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and protocol work was far removed from my general duties. But we were all pitching in because the main responsibility for organizing these conferences was carried by MEA.

Palam airport was very rudimentary those days. There were no airbridges and passengers were brought in buses from the tarmac to the terminal in buses. A special terminal was built to which NAM and CHOGM delegates were brought while protocol team members at Palam got their immigration formalities completed and collected their baggage. These were brought to the special terminal after which the delegates went to their places of stay. Naturally, in some instances there were delays in immigration clearance and baggage collection which led to the delegates’ irritation but on the whole the process went off smoothly.

The reception of Heads of State and Governments for both the conferences followed a different drill. They were not brought to the special terminal but received by the Indian dignitary on the tarmac. Their cars and security details were brought to the aircraft steps and after a brief conversation with the receiving Indian dignitary they got into the cars and went to their hotels. The rest of their delegation went to the special terminal and after the formalities were completed, they went off to their hotels. The list of Indian dignitaries who were welcoming the guests included President Giani Zail Singh and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

There were some interesting incidents at the Palam airport in both the conferences. One of them is worth recounting.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada, father of present Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arrived in the morning. His special aircraft stopped at its allotted space on the tarmac. The doors of the plane opened and Indira Gandhi’s car drove up to steps of the plane’s ladder. She got out of the car to welcome Trudeau who came down the steps. As they both began to exchange greetings, Trudeau’s car cade got into position so that he could depart. The Indian security person opened the rear car door, indicating that all was ready for Trudeau to take Mrs Gandhi’s leave, get into the car and go. He did not do so. A minute passed, then two, but Tudeau would not budge. Mrs Gandhi looked to me and other Indian officials wondering what was the hitch. We had no clue. So, we turned to Trudeau’s accompanying officials who avoided our gaze.

It was getting embarrassing. There was no conversation taking place between the two Prime Ministers. The door of Trudeau’s car remained open and he remained still. Then after around three minutes two Canadians began to descend the aircraft stairs carrying two large suitcases. They came down and had the car’s boot opened and put the suitcases in. Trudeau followed them ensured that the suitcases were in and the boot of the car was closed. He came around, shook Mrs Gandhi’s hand, got into the car and left. Mrs Gandhi turned to us officials. Her expression indicated that she wanted an explanation. We had none to give for, the standard procedure was, that Trudeau’s heavy baggage should have been in the hold was to be sent under special escort to his hotel.

After Mrs Gandhi had left a Canadian official came up to me. He looked a little sheepish and said that he was sorry but Trudeau was paranoid about his baggage getting misplaced. Hence, he always insisted on personally seeing that it was put in his car before he left the airport. The official said that apparently, he had lost his baggage when he was young and that is when this obsession with his baggage had set in.

The high and mighty are all ultimately human like the rest of us!

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