The private lives of Indian politicians

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Dietary habits vis-à-vis foreigners

India's fussy politicians a challenge for western diplomatic chefs

Vikram Doctor,ET Bureau | Sep 27, 2014 The Times of India

Many Indian politicians have personal dietary quirks restrictions imposed by their religion, and the chefs at the White House and similar places are used to dealing with them.

For example, a lot of salmon is served at these events, fish conveniently passes halal and kosher requirements and has a healthy reputation while salmon in particular seems luxurious enough and can be served largely boneless to prevent fears of the chief guest choking.

But Indian politicians appear to stump even the most experienced diplomatic chefs, and do it in a way that makes everyone else uncomfortable.

Perhaps it is a subtle way to score political points, and their food choices, or non-choices, do tend to cast them in a virtuous, if eccentric light. It certainly makes for memorable media moments, though actual long-term benefits might be questionable.

Morarji Desai

The real problem came after Desai became PM in the Janata government and gave an interview to the British journal, the Spectator, where he admitted to following a health regimen of drinking a glass of his urine every day. After that it was the only thing the western media wanted to talk about, and it didn't help that Desai was quite keen to promote urine therapy. Kamath, who was the Times of India's Washington correspondent at the time, moaned that any attempt to convey the Indian government's policy was wasted in talking about urine therapy.

When the PM went abroad, jokes about urine therapy followed. Luckily President Jimmy Carter knew better than to refer to them when he hosted Desai, and toasted him with a glass of plain water, rather than the usual wine. The meal was referred to as a Working Dinner, perhaps to justify its simplicity. Much to the relief of diplomats, both Indian and those of the host countries, India's other prime ministers have not posed such problems.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi seems to have liked most foods and in a visit during PV Narasimha Rao's time, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl recalled sending her German sausages, for which he got a letter of thanks that, tragically, he only got tragically, he only got two days after her assassination.

Mahatma Gandhi

The practice really started with Mahatma Gandhi, though the British had long been aware of the pitfalls of political dining in India, and had learned to have separate cooks for different communities. Gandhi actually simplified matters by making his own food arrangements, which were often in the hands of Mirabehn, the Englishwoman who was originally Madeleine Slade. For Gandhi she was just a useful helper, but some racist Englishmen saw a white woman waiting on an Indian as deliberate provocation.

Lord Irwin, the viceroy, didn't feel this way when, during the Gandhi-Irwin talks in 1931, she was told to bring Gandhi's food to the viceroy's lodge (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) so they didn't have to break the talks to eat. In her autobiography, `The Spirit's Pilgrimage', she recalled that in those days his diet was mostly dates and goat's milk, which she quickly packed along with the metal jail utensils that he had made a point of continuing to use.

On reaching the palace she was ushered into the viceroy's huge study where, she says, he greeted her with perfect friendliness.The room had a fitted carpet and she didn't want to risk spilling milk on it, but luckily she noticed a corner that was bare. She opened her basket there and poured the hot milk over the dates and gave it to Gandhi to eat.

The viceroy was intrigued and asked what it was: "`The Prophet's food,' said Bapu with a smile." Irwin was a devout Christian and would have got the allusion to the Middle East, but could he also have got a perhaps joking reference by Gandhi's own status?

The talks were followed by the Round Table conference for which Gandhi went to Europe. The food challenge this posed revolved around goats since Gandhi only drank their milk. It was almost the only protein he took so any shortfall soon had negative effects. Taking a goat on the ship to Europe was no problem, but it became harder once they got to Italy and took a train from there. At Paris, for example, Mirabehn recalled that a beautiful white goat had been provided, but the crowds that had come to see Gandhi were so great she couldn't make her way to the goat.

Gandhi's dietary needs didn't affect his work. But this may not have been the case with Morarji Desai. The problem was not just that Desai had a very restricted diet, but that he tried putting restrictions on others as well. MO Matthai, Jawaharlal Nehru's assistant, recalled how Desai tried to stop Delhi's embassies from serving alcohol, which almost caused a diplomatic incident since embassies are technically not under the jurisdiction of the country they are in.

Narendra Modi

A week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US in 2014, the Indian and Indian-American media were already packing in stories about it. Meanwhile, mainstream American media had barely noticed he was coming, but a Washington Post blog had picked up on the peculiar problem he posed for the White House: how were they to do the usual formal dinner for a man on a strict fast?

Richard Nixon

But MV Kamath, the veteran journalist, recalled that the real problem came with a dinner for Richard Nixon. In the early 1960s, before he was president of the US, Nixon had come to Delhi and was met by Desai, then a senior minister in Nehru's government. But Nixon was miffed at what he felt was "a meagre reception", with only vegetarian food and no alcohol, a particular hardship for him. When he went to Pakistan after that and was treated lavishly, it fixed his dislike for India and preference for Pakistan, which would cause huge problems when the Bangladesh crisis broke out.

Manmohan Singh

The last PM, Manmohan Singh, was also a frugal eater, but didn't impose his discipline on others. A dinner thrown for him by President George Bush in 2005 featured the inevitable fish (pan-roasted Halibut) with basmati rice as the one Indian accented accompaniment. The dessert though featured chocolate lotuses to eat with ice cream and one wonders what Singh made of this edible symbol of the opposing party.Perhaps it is just as well for the White House that PM Modi's water diet will prevent even an inadvertent food faux pas like this from being served.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

The previous BJP PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also happy to eat varied foods. On a visit to Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk, another food lover, served an Indian banquet with prawn curry and chicken tikka, for which he flew in chefs from Singapore and personally tried it all beforehand (one gets the impression the k ing used the visit as a way to indulge in Indian food!) At a dinner for Vajpayee thrown by President Bill Clinton, the White House kitchen, doubtless happy to put Desai's disappointments behind them, tried Indo-American fusion with dishes such as chicken smoked in Darjeeling tea.

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