Prayer rooms to a Rs 2-crore shopping spree, last-minute alteration of kurtas to clearing bodyguards’ guns, music CDs to mobile tablets, parking bays for about 35 aircraft to lion-shaped lapel pins — South Block went all out to extend the red carpet at the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi.
Held from October 26-29, the trickiest situation of the event possibly arose when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj received a call from an African counterpart to complain that his Prime Minister’s bodyguards were being prevented from boarding a commercial plane at Mumbai airport with their guns.
Sources said Swaraj immediately contacted a top South Block official tasked with organising the summit who spoke to airport authorities and resolved the situation “in five minutes”. The official had already been alerted by the liaision officer on one of the WhatsApp groups created specifically for the summit, sources said.
In at least six cases involving other African leaders, coordination with tailors became important as kurtas and jackets needed last-minute changes.
“Tailors were kept ready, and rushed to hotels where the leaders were staying. Measurements were taken and new sets of kurtas and jackets delivered in four hours,” an official said. The last set of kurtas were delivered by 4 pm on October 28, the official added, about two and-a-half hours before the Prime Minister’s dinner at the Crafts’ museum.
The last-minute changes were necessitated after some countries changed their representatives at the last minute. For instance, the Tanzanian President skipped the summit as the October 25 elections in his country were too close to call — he sent the Vice-President instead.
Similarly, leaders from Republic of Congo, Guinea, Guniea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Seychelles and Egypt confirmed their participation just before the summit was to begin.
Sources said some leaders went shopping in Delhi’s bazaars, including the Cottage Emporium and Dilli Haat. An official said one head of state from a North African country shopped for about Rs 2 crore in Karol Bagh.
Attention was paid to detail, with officials ensuring those who were old and unable to walk long distances were taken through shorter routes at the summit venue. Similarly, at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, they were taken on an elevator while others climbed the stairs to attend the President’s banquet.
The summit organisers also arranged for “prayer rooms” at the venue in the Indira Gandhi Indoor stadium. “Some leaders used them since the summit was a daylong affair,” said an official.
The Indian side also distributed mobile tabs to delegates to access the speeches online as soon as they were delivered. The African leaders were also given a gift pack each of ittar, ayurvedic oils and music CDs of chants in a high-end leather bag. “The idea was to give them gifts that appeal to all senses and give a taste of India,” said an official.
Lapel pins, meanwhile, were used to identify leaders from the rest — golden lion-shaped lapel pins were for presidents, PMs and kings, pins with silver lions and golden manes for foreign ministers leading delegations, silver lions for ministers accompanying leaders and copper lions for officials. “This made it easier to control access, and leaders to recognise the others,” an official said.
The coordination among South Block officials was handled by six officers who were also in charge of hotels that the housed the leaders.
With 41 leaders attending the summit from 54 countries, 34-35 planes from 25-26 countries were parked at Delhi airport — one head of state arrived with six planes and a 300-member delegation.