Guess who’s been Air India One’s most frequent passenger since 2011?
With his latest visits to Moscow and Beijing, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has become the most widely-travelled head of government in the history of independent India. Neither Jawaharlal Nehru, during his 17-year stint, nor his daughter, Indira Gandhi, in her 16-years as PM, travelled as much as Singh has in his tenure over more than nine years since May, 2004.
So most bets on this question would be on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, if not the president or vice president. But not quite.
Neither Singh nor any of his officials have clocked as much flight time on Air India One since 2011, as the head of a regional television channel.
For starters, Air India One is the call sign for one of the five Boeing 747s that the national carrier pulls out of its regular passenger service for VVIP visits abroad. In this context, VVIP includes the President, the Vice President and the Prime Minister.
The regional channel head accompanied the PM to Moscow and Beijing from October 20 to 24. The individual, who has been subject to several Right to Information (RTI) queries about his frequent travels abroad with VVIPs, then left with Vice President M. Hamid Ansari the very next day on October 25 on a 10-day visit to three countries; Peru, Cuba and the UK.
Government sources say that such is this former bureaucrat’s influence that he continues to unfailingly find a seat on Presidential, Vice Presidential and Prime Ministerial visits abroad, despite RTI applications and complaints from fellow journalists.
A seat on Air India One is considered a reporting privilege for journalists bestowed by the offices of the PM, President and Vice President on media outlets, and in rare cases, on particular individual journalists. Each dispensation has its favourites and those it doesn’t favour. For example, neither UPA 1 nor UPA 2 has ever invited any journalists from The Pioneer to accompany the PM on his visits abroad. However, the newspaper was a favourite with the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government.
But this frequent flier exercises influence that cuts across party lines. In his previous avatar as a bureaucrat, this individual was reputed to be close to Vasundhara Raje Scindia when she was the chief minister of Rajasthan. But his proximity to the BJP’s Scindia didn’t come in the way of the cultivation of influential friends inside the Prime Minister’s Office and the Congress party.
The CEO has been on 16 of the 20 Prime Ministerial visits abroad since the PM’s May, 2011 visit to Afghanistan. The four visits he missed were to Berlin (April, 2013), Tokyo and Bangkok (May, 2013) and Brunei (October, 2013), because of complaints and RTI queries. But he managed a seat on Air India One again during the PM’s recent visit to Moscow and Beijing.
And it isn’t just the PMO. Our man managed to charm the secretariats of both President Pratibha Patil as well as Pranab Mukherjee. He was on three of the four Presidential visits abroad in 2011 during Patil’s tenure and has been on both official visits that Mukherjee has undertaken – to Mauritius in March and to Turkey and Belgium in October. Similarly, he has been on three of the four Vice Presidential visits abroad.
And most recently, we learn that our man, who lands back with the Vice President on November 02, has already inquired about the PM’s plans to travel to Colombo to attend the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet) Summit on November 15 and has requested a place on Air India One. Again.