Bhikhu Bhana –
About two months ago, I received an email from New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE), informing me that as President of the New Zealand Indian Central Association (NZICA), I had been invited to join Prime Minister John Key on a trade and business trip to India from October 24 to October 28, 2016.
This was a surprise and a great honour for the organisation; for a long time, NZICA officers have been requesting for such a visit.
The only person who knew about the trip were members of my family and senior officers of NZICA. It was quite difficult to hold my words during conversations.
When Mr Key announced the trip at ‘Auckland Diwali’ on October 15, 2016, I could tell others. I also got a series of suggestions on how to prepare for the trip.
Aims and Objectives
There were two aims that stood out: (1) Enhance the awareness of Indian Diaspora in New Zealand and (2) Invite India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to New Zealand on behalf of the Indian community.
I prepared some information from our office, an information sheet which set out our history, objectives, while NZICA General Secretary Prakash Biradar prepared a letter of invitation to Mr Modi. I also took some copies of the book commissioned by NZICA and produced by Jaqueline Leckie.
I was told that protocol would not permit me to hand over such a letter of invitation directly to Mr Modi but was given the assurance that it would reach Mr Modi’s Office.
NZTE called for a meeting of the members of the business delegation for a briefing at the Executive Wing of Parliament in Wellington on October 14, 2016. I was in India on holiday, and I brought my return trip forward to attend the meeting, much to the annoyance of my family.
It was even more disappointing when the meeting was cancelled after I got home.
At that stage, I knew nothing about the trip apart from the timetable we were given. I contacted National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi and Venkat Raman, Editor & General Manager of Indian Newslink, who have been on such trips before. I thank them for guiding me, as without their help, I would have gone on the trip unprepared.
Memories at Whenupai
We arrived early at the Whenupai Royal New Zealand Air Force Air Base Airport on Monday, October 24, 2016. My memory went back to the years when commercial flights landed and took off from here, before the commercial airport was built in Mangere in South Auckland.
The group was organised in three parts. The first comprised Mr Key, his wife Bronagh, Members of Parliament Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi and Mark Mitchell, former Black Caps Captain Brendon McCullum, officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade. The second consisted of businesspersons and the third accounted for members of the Media. There was a New Zealand Armed forces Cricket team to play some matches and New Zealand Royal Air Force personnel.
Asia New Zealand Executive Director Simon Draper and I were the only persons who were not solely for business objectives on this trip.
When people asked me what my business was, I replied ‘People.’
The plane was equipped like a normal commercial aircraft. There was no inflight entertainment. The meals were of a good standard and choice, including alcohol. The Flight attendants wore RNZAF uniform, and were very friendly and competent.
The aircraft required two refuelling stops, one each in Australia and Jakarta, Indonesia. We stopped at Townsville on our outbound flight and at Brisbane on our return journey (both in Queensland, Australia). These stops were at the Royal Australia Air Force Air bases.
The Townsville grounding
The flight to Townsville was good, although it turned out to be an overnight halt. Everyone in New Zealand can probably tell me more about that sector as I believe it was the top news item. We were planned to arrive in Mumbai at 8 pm (IST) on October 24; the rest of it was covered by our media.
Skipping Mumbai was a disappointment for me personally. Another RNZAF plane arrived from New Zealand overnight and we took that flight via Jakarta to New Delhi on October 25, 2016.
When we were given the programme, it was very detailed with times of events. I could not understand how we could get from the airport to the hotel in New Delhi in 15 minutes. I realised how after landing. All the streets were barricaded and the Prime Minister and his accompanying delegations had the road to themselves with full military escort. It was like Royalty.
Bhikhu Bhana is President, New Zealand India Central Association. He was a member of the business delegation that accompanied Prime Minister John Key to India from October 24 to 28, 2016. Another report follows this article.