The Indian delegation has returned quite upset from South Africa and for good reason,because this is,perhaps,the first time that the Indian Prime Minister has gone to a country and failed to hold a separate meeting with the host.
There was no grand diplomatic stand-off with the South African government,just poor planning and organisation that squeezed out the bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South African President Jacob Zuma,said sources.
What probably hurt more was that Singh was the first among the BRICS leaders to reach Durban on March 25,a day before the summit,and still Zuma could not find the time while he played the proper host to his Chinese and Russian counterparts. In the end,Singh managed to hold separate meetings with all BRICS leaders except Zuma.
The Chinese side had turned Xis visit into a state visit,which meant South Africa had full-fledged bilateral fare laid out,with agreements and deals being signed on the side. While Zuma had to give nearly an entire day to Xi in Pretoria,he could not ignore Russian President Vladimir Putin in Durban because Moscow had converted the trip into a working visit which meant formalised bilateral content like adding some new clauses to their bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation.
As a result,India and Brazil seemed relegated. India,perhaps,a bit more. For starters,the South African government took control of all hotel accommodation in and around Durban since heads of states and government of some 18 African countries were also to be there for a retreat with BRICS nations on March 27.
Its not clear how the dice rolled,but the Prime Minister found himself allotted a resort in Zimbali,40 km from Durban while the Brazilian,Russian and Chinese leaders were lodged in hotels within Durban,close to the venue where the summit was held over two days. Almost as a consolation,the retreat with the African countries was held at the Zimbali resort after the summit was over.
So,Singh had to travel into the city on both days of the summit,March 26-27,and also suffer the long delays in the programme. On the first day,Singh wound up from Durban around midnight,whereas he was to be back in his resort by 10 pm according to his schedule.
This was also the day he was originally slated to meet Zuma,but it did not work out because the South Africa-Russia bilateral meeting overshot by an hour. The original plan was for Singh to meet Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff around 5:45 pm,which happened. After that was the meeting with Putin at 6:15 pm and then with Zuma at 6:45 pm,following which was the cultural programme and banquet for the BRICS leaders.
Due to the delay in the South Africa-Russia meet,the PM could meet Putin only at 7:30 pm for about over an hour,he was seated in a holding room allotted to each country at the summit convention centre. And once he was done with Putin,it was time for the cultural programme to start.
Unlike Singh,the Brazilian President,who was to meet Zuma after the meeting with the PM,refused to wait and left for her hotel an option unavailable to the PM as his location was out of town. Thereafter,the banquet,which was to finish by 9:30 pm,wrapped up only by 11:30 pm.
The next day was even more bizarre for the Indian delegation. First,what was to start with a family photograph of the BRICS leaders,began with a restricted meeting of leaders. This switch in order put protocol in a mess. And lengthy plenary statements meant that what was to end by 2 pm after a luncheon,actually concluded an hour later,delaying the departure of the leaders for the African dialogue and retreat in Zimbali.
The India-China bilateral meeting was slated for 5:45 pm on that day at Zimbali,just after the retreat which was scheduled to end by 5:30 pm. Instead,not only did the retreat start an hour late,it stretched until 7:30 pm. Each African leader was to speak for three minutes,but no one kept to time. And the worst violator was Zuma himself who spoke for 25 minutes and even mocked that a Zulu minute is a little longer.
Suddenly,after the retreat,the South African foreign minister wanted Singh to meet Zuma quickly for 15-20 minutes. By then,the Indians were livid at the lack of care for protocol,and simply refused to comply at such short notice. Singh needed a half-an-hour breather and that was not acceptable to the South African side.
The Indian delegation was then focused on the Xi meeting,for which the senior officials wanted Singh rested and prepared. At Brazils request,since Rousseff was to leave the same night,India swapped slots for the meeting with Xi. As a result,the meeting eventually happened at 9 pm a good four hours off schedule.
India was,however,not the only delegation frustrated by the poor time-keeping. At one stage,an irritated Chinese delegation member is learnt to have told the South Africans that the first gift from Beijing to them has to be a good Chinese watch.