In what would be his first outreach to the foreign diplomatic community ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has invited ambassadors and high commissioners from the diplomatic missions stationed in Delhi for a lunch meeting on February 15, sources have told The Indian Express.
Sources said former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to attend the lunch meeting as well.
This will be the Congress president’s first formal interaction with the diplomatic corps in Delhi, although he had hosted envoys of about 40 countries for an Iftar party last year.
As the election season dawns in India, many from the foreign diplomatic corps were interested in meeting Gandhi and get an assessment about his “foreign policy approach”.
This interest was evident, as many such requests for meetings were landing up at the Congress president’s office over the past few weeks.
The diplomats and the party were also keen to wrap up these meetings before the “model code of conduct” kicked in, lest it is seen to be interfering with the election process in India.
Sources said another major concern — although unsaid — was the issue of perception of foreign diplomats meeting Gandhi, ahead of the polls. A Congress party source said many diplomats were interested in meeting Gandhi, but were unsure about how the ruling NDA government would perceive such meetings.
Sources said the Congress party has decided to have a meeting with all diplomatic heads of missions, where he would possibly make some brief opening remarks, and would also answer their questions. “It is going to be an interactive session, since many are interested in knowing his foreign policy mind,” sources said.
A western diplomat recalled that engaging with Opposition leaders is not unusual. “The European ambassadors, led by then German envoy Michael Steiner, had hosted then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in 2013 for a lunch meeting at the German ambassador’s residence in Chanakyapuri,” the diplomat told The Indian Express.
There have been some incidents in the recent past where Gandhi had crossed paths with the diplomatic corps. Sources said that while Gandhi’s views on the Rafale controversy had caused some consternation in the French government — the French foreign ministry had even issued statements last year on his comments — the issue of Doklam has also been raised by Gandhi. His meeting with Chinese envoy Luo Zhaohui in 2017 had also created a controversy last year, with the BJP trying to corner him on his agenda. Gandhi has also been very critical of the Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Similarly, Modi had tried to rake up the meeting hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyer, which was attended by Manmohan Singh and Pakistan envoy Sohail Mahmood among others, and had given it a political colour ahead of the Gujarat polls in December 2017.
Sources said the meeting is a good opportunity to put across Gandhi’s views concerning the major foreign policy challenges in an uncertain world.
While he has had meetings with some diplomats on more private settings, this is going to be his major platform for interaction with the community — who can then report back to their Capitals.
“Our Capitals are very keen to know about his views on specific issues on foreign policy. While we follow his comments on the domestic political issues, we would really like to understand his worldview in such a turbulent time,” a diplomat said.
For many envoys, this will be an opportunity to establish contact with the Congress chief’s office directly since the NDA government had stopped putting meetings between Opposition leaders and visiting foreign leaders in the schedule, and it really depended on the visiting leader to meet the Congress leaders during the visits.