At PM's dinner, menu was bitter too

For a government constantly engaged in humouring difficult friends, and appeasing recalcitrant opponents, diplomatic gastronomy can be a useful tool. In the last fortnight, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has had Samajwadi Party (SP) supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, over for dinner; and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) boss Mayawati for lunch.

Today, the SP and the BSP don’t look as difficult: both parties have indicated that they will cooperate with the government on the contentious issue of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. They will not press for a debate with a vote at the end, and if that becomes inevitable, they will help to ensure the longevity of the government.

So was it the carte du jour at the meals or the arguments that were served along with the repast at 7 Race Course Road that persuaded the Hindi heartland’s biggest leaders to agree with their host?

Whatever it was, Thursday night’s dinner diplomacy with Bharatiya Janata Party leaders L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley — the third such exercise — clearly did not come up to scratch. If the Congress’ arguments failed to persuade, the bill of fare apparently sent out an unpalatable message to the BJP trio.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath’s riposte to Ms. Swaraj — when she produced a copy of the former Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee’s assurance that the government would consult political parties and State governments on FDI before taking a decision — that the word “all” did not precede either political parties or State governments only sparked off outrage among the BJP leaders. Mr. Advani reportedly turned to the others present — the Prime Minister, Union Ministers P. Chidambaram and Sushil Kumar Shinde — to ask whether Mr. Nath was serious. When facetiousness failed, Dr. Singh made an emotional appeal — if the BJP leaders felt the government had made a mistake, they should punish the government, not the nation. But the Opposition leaders remained unmoved, with Mr. Chidambaram’s pitch on the economic challenges the country faced and the dire need for foreign investment not making a dent in the BJP armour.

Next came dinner: in deference to the culinary habits of Mr. Advani and Ms. Swaraj, it was an entirely vegetarian meal. But those planning the menu had evidently forgotten that Mr. Jaitley, a connoisseur of good food, is more catholic in his tastes. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the bill of fare included karela — or bitter gourd. A Congress Minister, asked whether the government could not have thought of something better to sweeten up the Opposition leaders, simply said: “Both Sushmaji and Arunji are diabetics — we need to think of their health.”

But while “This is a government that cares — for the health of the Opposition” may be a snappy campaign line, it may not, in this case, take away the bitter aftertaste of the humble karela.

Perhaps, it’s time the government’s managers delved into Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Philosopher in the Kitchen. Savarin, a French lawyer and politician, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and gained fame as an epicure and gastronome had written: “… the fate of nations has often been sealed at a banquet.”

For the UPA, the food thing has always been difficult. Shortly after it came to power in 2004, the Prime Minister invited a group of top editors to breakfast. When one of his officials checked with him what should be ordered, one account has it, he simply snapped, “Whatever is usual.” On the appointed day, as the guests filed in, the array of dishes was impressive — and unending — as every conceivable breakfast possibility was dished up. After his guests departed, a horrified Dr. Singh called the official and asked him what he meant by the display of extravagance. Defending himself, the official said, “Sir, you said to order what is usual. This is what is usual at the PMO.” Evidently, Dr. Singh’s predecessor, the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a known gourmet, had never stinted on matters culinary!

Of course, culinary profligacy does not go down well with everyone. In UPA-I , the Prime Minister would invite Left leaders to sort out tricky issues from time to time, but Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat made it clear that he and his colleagues did not wish to be distracted by a meal. Not for them the seductions of food.

Mr. Karat had clearly taken a lesson from Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1961, when Nehru visited the United States, he indicated that he wished for “simplicity” and a lack of ceremony. In her book, Diplomatic Gastronomy: Style and Power at the Table, L. Morgan explains that this request changed the power relationship: “Nehru took the symbol of power normally found in the ceremonial structure of a formal dinner and transformed it with his request for simplicity. In doing this, he turned the power dynamic on its head and created an entirely new platform that he controlled. … Nehru, not his host, maintained the control.

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