Book Extract: Banquets and breakfasts
"While banquets in other countries were much more egalitarian and gracious, ours tended to be hierarchical and stilted...Journos in Rashtrapati Bhavan were always put at the end of the table..."
One of Vajpayee’s state visits to the US coincided with the end of Bill Clinton’s term. Clinton threw a banquet for him but because it was the last big party the Clintons would ever throw in the White House, there was a huge clamour for tickets to the extent that the Washington Post even wrote an article about it. I got an invitation as part of the Indian press party and was childishly excited to wander around the White House. Too many people had wanted to attend so the Clintons had put up a huge tent in the garden to host the party and we were driven there in shuttle buses, passing the windows of the Oval Office on our way there.
The dinner was fine (the food was rubbish) but the real excitement came afterwards when guests were invited back to the White House for coffee. Most of the Indian delegation left but I hung around, discovering how different things were in America.
In India, at the end of every banquet, whether it is thrown by the president or the prime minister, the hosts leave and the guests make desultory conversation as they file out through an open door. But here, the Clintons treated us as guests in their home. Bill Clinton came up to me and asked if I was enjoying myself.
He introduced Hillary. I told her that I had just seen her debate her opponent in the New York senate race. ‘Wasn’t she great?’ said Bill. I said she was and we chatted for a few minutes before they moved on to their other guests. They had no clue who I was but felt, as hosts, that they had to put their guests at ease.
I noticed this in other countries too. While their banquets were much more egalitarian and gracious, ours tended to be hierarchical and stilted. At a party thrown for Manmohan Singh in London, the entire British Cabinet and lots of very famous Brits walked around and spoke to everyone. Everyone wore name tags, even Margaret Thatcher who said she had come because of ‘my love for India’.
At a banquet in Tokyo, I sat next to the chairman of Sony who told me how appalled he was that the prime minister of Japan was serving such bad food to the leader of a friendly country.
I did my share of Indian banquets under four or five prime ministers.
You got to meet the prime minister and his guest in the reception line but then they disappeared to a cordoned off area and you never had a chance to talk to them. Rashtrapati Bhavan was better because you had an opportunity to mingle at the start of the dinner before you moved into the main dining room. But journos came low down in the Rashtrapati Bhavan pecking order so we were always put at the end of the table with the president’s staff.
The food and service were usually terrible. And when one of our presidents (I shall be discreet and not name him) announced that in future his kitchen would make one dish from the visiting head of state’s country to make him feel at home, I groaned inwardly. Clearly, they were not satisfied with murdering our own cuisine and wanted to murder the cuisine of the poor chief guest’s country as well.
The most significant event I attended however, was not in Delhi or London or Washington. It was breakfast in Agra as the guest of General Musharraf.
I once went to a breakfast meeting organized by the Pakistani embassy for President Leghari. The Indian journos treated him with so much warmth that Leghari felt obliged to tell us how Kashmir was really a part of Pakistan. When it was my turn to ask a question, I asked Leghari if he did not think there was a contradiction between his talk of self-determination and his claim that Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. Surely, if the Kashmiris had the right to self-determination, then they could choose to stay with India or even opt for independence?
Leghari was firm. No independence, he said. We have a two-nation theory in the subcontinent. They can only come to Pakistan. All the other Indian journos were horrified by my impertinence and looked at me as though I had farted loudly at a funeral.
So, I was not excited about the Agra Summit between Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator du jour. I thought the summit was a bad idea. It had been Advani’s brainwave to invite Musharraf and everybody I knew in the foreign ministry was pretty sure that nothing would come of it.
I attended Vajpayee’s banquet for Musharraf which was notable only for a loud political argument between two Indian guests (Tavleen Singh and Renuka Choudhary) and for the tendency of ArdeshirCowasjee, an elderly but extremely sprightly Pakistani columnist, to kiss all the women present on their cheeks.
I sat next to Prannoy Roy and we watched in horror as Musharraf went around the table asking editors if they had anything to ask him. One by one, the editors told him what a wonderful chap he was, how much they loved Pakistan and how thrilled they were to meet him. My old friend Vinod Mehta, a dedicated Pakistan-loving Punjabi even said to Musharraf. ‘Sir, I support you so much that in India, they call me your man!’
As the President went around the room, I knew I would once again be the man-who-farted-at-a-funeral. When it was my turn, I said to Musharraf that we all knew that he was the architect of Kargil. Why on earth should we trust him now? Musharraf bristled. ‘Trust. Trust,’ he said. ‘This question should have been asked before you invited me here. Not after.’
Fair enough. But I was not the one who had invited him. When it was Prannoy’s turn, he said that he found it odd that though Musharraf made so many references to the wishes of the people of Kashmir, he himself was an unelected leader. (He had seized power in a coup.) Didn’t he see the contradiction?
Musharraf got even angrier and the breakfast ended on a sour note, which pleased me no end, because I was so annoyed by the sycophancy so many Indian editors had lavished on this devious dictator.
Earlier, at the breakfast, Prannoy had asked me if I noticed that a single TV camera in the centre was recording the breakfast. I said I had. ‘What do you think they will do with the footage?’ Prannoy asked. I said I thought they would put it on some Pakistani channel to show that Indian journalists loved Musharraf much more than Pakistani journalists did. ‘Do you think they will give us a copy of the tape?’ Prannoy wondered. I said I did not see why not.
At the end of the breakfast, Prannoy went up to the Pakistani delegation and asked for the tape. Clearly, they agreed to give it to him because in no time at all, NDTV was broadcasting the recording of the breakfast. The General knew that the breakfast would be played on Pakistan TV. He was hardly going to sound soft and conciliatory in front of his domestic constituency.
The Pakistanis blamed Advani for the failure of the summit. Vajpayee, they said, was a peace-loving man but Advani was a hardliner.
This suited Advani perfectly. His camp portrayed him as the tough guy who was shocked by the proposed Joint Declaration because it made no reference to cross-border terrorism. Vajpayee, they suggested, was a peace-loving wimp. In the confusion, people forgot that the summit had been Advani’s idea.
Musharraf cancelled a planned visit to Ajmer to visit the dargah and flew back immediately to Pakistan.
And I never ever agreed to attend another breakfast meeting with a Pakistani leader again.