New Delhi: As Vice President Hamid Ansari heads to Australia to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), India Tuesday clarified that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not go due to his other pressing overseas engagements.
"It`s not correct. The impression is unfortunate," Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters when asked about some reports in Australian media that suggested that Manmohan Singh`s absence from the CHOGM summit was a failure on part of Australia to build a strong relationship with India.
"The prime minister has heavy engagements," Mathai said in a reference to three multilateral summits overseas the prime minister will be attending in November.
"In our system, the vice president holds a position of great importance. He is second in the warrant of precedence," he said, adding that Ansari has "a vast experience in international relations".
New Delhi`s clarification came amid reports that the Commonwealth Secretariat had earlier refused to grant Ansari the same status and attendant protocol honours as that of a head of government. However, India had put its foot down, making it clear that in the Indian system, the vice present was higher in protocol than even the prime minister in order of precedence.
Accompanied by senior officials and a large media delegation, Ansari will head to Perth early Thursday morning, soon after the Diwali celebrations in the country.
Ansari will also hold bilateral talks with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. India is expected to press the issue of access to uranium, which is currently barred under Australian law to those countries which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Mathai also defended the relevance of the 54-nation club of former colonies of the British empire amid growing scepticism about the grouping`s relevance.
"The Commonwealth retains its relevance. It has evolved considerably since it was founded in 1959. It`s a useful forum for assistance of technical and economic nature to many countries," said Mathai.
"It has emerged as a one-stop shop for many of its members to easily access a variety of assistance and support in areas such as technical advice, financial support, consultancies, feasibility reports, managerial training and skill development," he added.
He stressed that the body was doing important work in the areas of gender equality, education and youth and has been a pillar of support for many smaller developing countries.
The summit will also focus on enhancing the Commonwealth`s role in international fora, including the G20.
India is the largest member of the Commonwealth, accounting for nearly 60 percent of its total population. The re-election of Kamalesh Sharma, secretary-general of the Commonwealth and a former Indian high commissioner to Britain, will also be considered by leaders at the summit.
The official theme for CHOGM 2011 is `Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience`.
A joint communique spelling out the position of the Commonwealth on major issues will be adopted at the end of the summit. A stand-alone Declaration on Food Security Principles is also expected to be negotiated and adopted.
The leaders will discuss a whole gamut of issues ranging from the promotion and protection of fundamental political values in the Commonwealth and the global economic situation and international trade, Mathai said.
They will also discuss the Commonwealth`s engagement with the G-20, climate change and sustainable development and initiatives to deal with the concerns of the youth and women.
Sharing the agenda, Mathai said Australia has circulated a concept paper on strengthening the Commonwealth to enable it to more effectively assist member nations in dealing with various challenges.