Nirupama flies in for breakfast with Mahinda

by S Venkat Narayan - Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, July 30: In a gesture that is unprecedented in global diplomacy, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Saturday hosted a "farewell breakfast" for India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who retires on Sunday.

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is sending her to Washington as Indian Ambassador. She is due to take up her new assignment later this week.

Ms Rao flew down to Colombo on Friday evening on an unpublicised visit. The president hosted breakfast for her at his official residence. She was accompanied by Ashok K Kantha and Vikram Misri, India’s high commissioner and deputy high commissioner to Sri Lanka, respectively. The President’s Secretary Lalith Weerathunga was among those present.

Kantha told the Sunday Island in a telephone interview: "It was a farewell breakfast hosted by President Rajapaksa for Mrs Rao. This presidential gesture to the retiring Indian foreign secretary shows the level of friendship that exists between our two countries."

President Rajapaksa’s Press Secretary Bandula Jayasekara said in a separate telephone conversation that the Sri Lankan leader’s gesture to the retiring Indian foreign secretary reveals the importance he attaches to individuals and human relations between people irrespective of the rank or office they hold.

Jayasekara said: "The president holds Mrs Rao in high esteem and has great regard for what she has done to promote strong bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka. Soon after he was elected President in 2005, Mrs Rao was the high commissioner in Colombo. He surprised everybody in Sri Lanka by paying her a visit at India House, the elegant official residence of the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo."

Rajapaksa’s warm and wonderful gesture to Mrs Rao is also a tribute by a neighbouring country’s president is in appreciation of the efficiency and professionalism of a brilliant Indian foreign service official.

There are many reasons for the affection and respect President Rajapaksa has for Mrs Rao. For instance, when the deadly tsunami hit Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004, Rajapaksa was the island’s prime minister, and Mrs Rao Indian high commissioner in Colombo.

When the tsunami stuck Sri Lanka, Mrs Rao was away on a holiday in Bengaluru. Rajapaksa tracked her down, telephoned her, briefed her on the damage the tsunami did to his country and sought India’s help on an urgent basis. In less than 24 hours, Indian naval vessels carrying food and other materials were the first to reach Sri Lanka’s battered shores.

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