Thursday, January 6, 2011

Delhi's dinner diplomacy.

Author's Note: I came across this piece a while back. Perhaps while trawling the net. Perhaps a friend forwarded it. Don't remember now. You see... it's quite foggy and chilly these days *wink* so... if I'm unknowingly violating someone's copyright... please do let me know. The piece makes for an interesting read... so read on.

The winter session of Parliament is always a good time to network, and most politicians put on their party gear, and start some major dinner diplomacy. The most politically significant one was undoubtedly the 'fishy' dinner hosted by Somnath Chatterjee for Opposition leaders. After much activity, the dinner marked the first coming together of Opposition stalwarts, whose friendly cooperation will undoubtedly result in the total rout of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, followed by the inevitable domino consequences in the rest of the country... maybe even a midterm election. Dinner diplomacy is not new in Indian politics, and as women in politics we have often found to our disadvantage, that when the sun sets, male politicians begin their nocturnal networking, and since we are totally shut out of this bonding exercise, women are usually the last to know of any development in the party.

Sometimes I feel that Parliament is a mere background, because after about 12 noon, hardly any MP will be found seated in the House. There are of course some hard core members who determinedly keep the House going, but most will be found on the move, touching base with various colleagues, and catching up on the latest.

In my first couple of years in Parliament, I behaved like it was the High Court, or similar place of work, and sat there till the bell rang for us to leave. I gained tremendous experience of Parliamentary practice, but gained precious little on the political front. I was always two steps behind politically, and would realise too late the significance of any particular development. It was in this way that I was completely ignorant of the importance of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Bofors. I had no idea that being made a member of the Committee was a sign of the Prime Minister's confidence in you, and many senior members were lobbying hard to be on the Committee.

When my name appeared, I just assumed it was run of the mill, perhaps because of my legal background or something, and I was thus totally unprepared for the terrible resentment my appointment unleashed among several senior colleagues, who felt slighted that they had been left out, and a raw junior like me included. If only I had moved around a bit more, I would have understood the ramifications of being a member of the Committee.

One thing stands out in my mind. I went to the Prime Minister, at that time, and asked him what he wanted us to achieve on the Bofors Committee in terms of the Congress Party. He looked me straight in the eye, and told me "Jayanthi, there is only one thing I want you to do... fear no one, and go after the truth with all your heart."

That is one of my cherished memories of Rajiv Gandhi. In later days so many lies were spread about him, and so often, his idealism and essential goodness were completely obscured. At the height of the worst controversy in his life, when his very integrity was being called to question, Rajiv looked me in the eye, and said. "Fear no one in your pursuit of the truth. We have nothing to hide."

Thus I went my merry way, innocent of any political survival skills, and it was not much later, after many bitter experiences of betrayal, and treachery, that I learned that the only way to survive in politics is by keeping your ear to the ground, and keeping in constant touch with your colleagues. It is of course quite another story that when I did rouse myself to go for a dinner, I simply assumed that we were meeting to eat, and would be more or less blind to other activity, unless it was explained to me in one syllable words!

There are so many dinners I have attended, that it is a nostalgic trip down memory lane to recollect them. In those days, the Prime Minister always called Party MPs for dinner during the Parliament Session. That was the high point of the session. Rajiv Gandhi always had small groups of us over for dinner, and it gave him a chance to interact with us at close quarters.

The best Parliament session I remember was the one where I was deputed by the Prime Minister to write some report or other, and consequently had to attend every dinner. I felt more important than if I had been made a Cabinet Minister! Narasimha Rao never called us for dinner... he preferred to keep a distance from his MPs, and kept interaction to a bare minimum. He was always courteous when we went to meet him, but it was clear that he did not want any kind of personal rapport with the likes of us.

Rashtrapathi Bhavan keeps a list of MPs who are called whenever foreign dignitaries visit, and the dinner I will never forget is the one to which Princess Diana came... There she stood looking so beautiful, that we could not take our eyes off her. If I remember correctly, it was winter then, and she shivered a little in the fresh evening air.

Immediately, the ever gallant Amjad Ali Khan whipped off his priceless Jamavar shawl and put it round her shoulders. She kept it on, and later went home with it, after thanking him with charm and wit. Her mother-in-law the Queen was totally different. When she came to India, a few years ago, I was Minister for Civil Aviation. And when I went for dinner, I was prepared to be rude and disagreeable, because her husband Prince Philip had made several obnoxious remarks about India's population (You really need more condoms in this country) and Jallianwala Bagh, and the entire country was up in arms. Then I met the Queen, and words forsook me. She is not the Queen for nothing... she was so regal and gracious, and queenly that I just did not have the courage or will to be controversial. Even though her clothes were old-fashioned and almost frumpy, she carried the day with her royal grace.

Then there was the dinner for Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, but I would be lying if I claimed to remember anything. The moment I was introduced, I looked at Mr Gorbachev, and muttered something. There was such piercing intelligence in his eyes, that I was too intimidated to say anything remotely intelligent, and by the time I recovered my wits, it was too late, and he had moved on. Those were the heady days of glasnost and perestroika, and I have always regretted that I let the opportunity pass, because there was so much I wanted to ask him.

There have been so many dinners, and so many opportunities. Presidents, Vice Presidents and Prime Ministers have each their own style and signature food. One of the enduring advantages of being an MP, and in Delhi, is the chance that then becomes available to meet the movers and shakers of the world. And in case I have given anybody an impression that I get invited to dinners, where I gawk at the high and mighty, and leave without saying a word, I have to report about a very enjoyable meal I was invited to, along with Delhi's flavour of the month... Benazir Bhutto.

Benazir has taken Delhi by storm this season. Some thought it strange, that a politician in exile from her own country should get so much importance, and newspaper coverage in India, but these were just the usual disagreeable dissenters. After all, if Delhi could roll out the red carpet for Robin Raphel, a junior diplomat from America, who laid down the law for us on Kashmir, there is no reason on earth, why we should not encourage one of the few voices of democracy in or from Pakistan.

Those who knew her earlier say that she has changed, and is far more sensible and politically acute now. She definitely hit all the right notes in her interaction with Indian leaders and the media. She said that she would not repeat her earlier mistakes, and would adopt a more constructive approach regarding relations with India. She spoke about Empowerment of women, and was really effective, when she described her identity as a Muslim woman and politician. At dinner, she sparkled. There was a very small crowd present, and Benazir set out to charm them.

It was first name terms with everyone... Margaret (Alva), Sushma and Najma. She chatted and joked and laughed. She said that Najma had always been her favourite Indian politician, but now Sushma had taken her place, after Sushma's performance at the Agra Summit! And beyond all the good natured ribbing, she never lost sight of her political agenda. She kept on pushing her cause to Najma Heptulla (who is the President of the Inter Parliamentary Union) to send IPU observers to monitor the forthcoming elections in Pakistan. The only time she was a little taken aback was when she asked for kababs and biriyani and was told that this was a vegetarian household.

At this late stage, I have learned something. It is possible to laugh and eat and quietly push your political agenda. It now remains for me to be invited to other dinners, so that I may practise my newly acquired skills.

P.S. Perhaps it was written by Jayanthi Natarajan... a lawyer and Congress party member.

Note: Prince Philip is the tall chap who married Queen Elizabeth II - the Queen of England, enjoys making beautifully inappropriate comments, and feels intimate contact with his television might be necessary in order to make it work. In a revealing interview, only some of which seems to have appeared on the Buckingham Palace YouTube channel, the prince laid bare his electrical dysfunction, one that many might, secretly or not, actually share. His interviewer, a rather well spoken chap called Kevin McCloud, brightened up the pages of London's Times newspaper with some of the prince's heartfelt words. Perhaps the most elegant of the phrases turned by the 88-year-old prince was: "To work out how to operate a television set, you practically have to make love to the thing."

It has never been my habit to wonder about the conjugal behavior of the regal. Of course, the prince's imagery is so disconcerting that I wonder just what actions came immediately before the creation of, for example, Prince Charles. Must say... simple things of life get addled and muddled by the prince's highly colourful imagery. What??

Learn about the strange but true - The Prince Philip Movement (Religion). More about it can be read at: Is Prince Philip a god? And... the Prince Philip Movement. It is a cult religion of the Yaohnanen tribe - an ancient tribe - living high in a mist-shrouded mountain village on the southern island of Tanna in Vanuatu. The tribes' people (Yaohnanen) believe that Prince Philip, aka Duke of Edinburgh, aka the Queen of England's husband, is a divine being. Sputter! Gulp!


Pic courtesy: Link. Prince Philip aka The Duke of Edinburgh is not known for his politically correct choice of words. Talking to an Aborigine during a trip to Australia he asked "still chucking spears are we?" (March 2002)


  1. Enjoyed reading this post too, Roshmi!

    I remember reading in the Sunday magazine last page (Amjad Ali Khan's page) about the shawl!

    Have you watched the movie 'Queen'? I remembered that movie while reading about the Queen, here! Prince Philip's jokes...I am still laughing!

    Yes, Ms. Bhutto is famous for manipulating people!

    Somehow I felt that Narasimha Rao was not meant to be a politician, but he survived and helped to pull out our economy from disaster. I admire him for this and do you know, he was a linguist. He was good at many languages.

    I have seen Jayanthi Natarajan arguing about anything and everything, without batting an eyelid in the debates in TV channels. She is good in her profession (political).

    Thanks for so many interesting information here, Roshmi!

  2. @ Sandhyaji: The man who said that the decision of not taking a decision is also a decision... was too Machiavellian for anybody's good. He weakened the grand old party and thereby India. The credit for the economic reforms goes elsewhere. However there should have been checks and balances...

    I have seen Jayanthi Natarajan too... arguing without batting an eyelid about anything and everything... as you said. If she hadn't been good at giving large amounts of sound bytes she wouldn't be on TV as the spokesperson :)

    All politicians are too good at their profession... else they die penniless and unsung.

    "Yes, Ms. Bhutto is famous for manipulating people!"

    ... Errr... didn't quite get you.

    Yes... Prince Philip is adept at putting his foot into his mouth on most occasions. He is truly the clown prince :)

  3. Once I read an article about Ms.Bhutto written by her close friend. She had written that Bhutto always or mostly acts and very rarely her true feeling comes out. She was supposedly very friendly with our Indira Gandhi too, off screen. But as soon as she wore the politician's role, Indira Gandhi was just an Indian, her opponent.

    Watch the movie 'Queen', you will like it!

  4. @ Sandhyaji: Ms Bhutto first came to India in mid 1972... with her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB)... then President of Pak. Pak had just lost the '71 war with India... and Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) had been created.

    ZAB came to negotiate with Mrs. G who was then the PM of India and the victor.

    Benazir had just turned 19 then... and was an under-grad student at Harvard University.

    Mrs. G wasn't particularly fond of ZAB... but apparently personally decorated the room where Benazir was put up in Shimla. She wasn't spoiling a President's daughter... but was just acknowledging the promise she may have recognized in the young girl.

    ZAB and Mrs. G eventually went on to sign the well-known 'Shimla Agreement' (1972) after a few days of negotiations in Shimla. While all the negotiations were happening behind closed doors... Benazir apparently took Shimla by storm. All appreciated her easy charm, down-to-earth demanour and wit. So much so that a newspaper even headlined 'Benazir is Benazir'.

    Benazir means 'one without equal' or 'peerless'.

    In 1977 when ZAB was overthrown in a coup and subsequently hanged in 1979 after a sham trial... Mrs. G in India was out of power and the now defunct Janata Party headed by Morarji Desai was at the helm. Mrs. G is said to have commented that had she been in power this would have never happened. She would not have let it happen.

    Benazir was put behind bars... and underwent very trying times. When in 1984 she was finally released from prison (she was locked up in a grade C/lowest category desert prison for 3.5 years under solitary confinement) due to international pressure... to seek medical treatment abroad... she chose to go to the UK.

    Mrs. G was the PM then. She had offered her asylum just as she did to Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh... after her family was massacred. But... Benazir chose UK over India... for obvious reasons. She interacted with supporters, rebuilt her party and sought medical help as well. Note: Sheikh Hasina had accepted Mrs. G's offer.

    Ms. Bhutto had always stated that her father had encouraged her to study the life of exceptional women/women leaders like Mrs. G and Joan of Arc. (She had specifically named these 2 people). Infact... she stated that her trip to India for the Shimla agreement was primarily to see history in the making and meet Mrs. G... first hand.

    Apparently her father would proudly tell her that she would surpass Mrs. G and make him proud.

    She had said these things several times... in interviews/interactions. She has never said anything demeaning towards Mrs. G.

  5. @ Sandhyaji: Infact... the security apparatus and their stooges in Pak - the Mullah-Military and agencies (plus their proxies in the media and politics) always termed her as an Indian agent... and ran several campaigns against her.

    I have followed world politics/International affairs... esp. w.r.t this subcontinent for long... read, watched, heard, listened and discussed. I do remember many incidents/events that others may not know or may have forgotten.

    Let me make it clear... I'm nobody's supporter. Let alone anybody from across the border... 'Coz I'm an Indian :)

    To understand Ms. Bhutto's role you have to understand geo-political events, the 'great game', internal and external stakeholders, the situation inside Pak - a deeply tribal, caste and class-conscious society... that was also Islamic... the brand nurtured by Uncle Sam country and their cronies, that is. The all pervading influence of the jackboots, intelligence agencies and their cronies in the media, courts, politics, business and religion. Plus their masters from across the seven seas.

    You may have noticed... that Pak gets clubbed with India and the Bhuttos get clubbed with the Gandhis - the first family of India. And the 'dynastic' word gets bandied about. I won't go into India related stuff here. But clubbing Pak with India and the Bhuttos with the Gandhis... is very, very naive, to say the least.

    Her party is a matrilineal line... she was the one who built it. The symbol used by her father and the one used by her are different. Incidentally... the party symbol used by her father was the sword... which the powers-that-be gave to the party run by her brother's family... with the brother's widow at the helm. Her party's symbol is the arrow. Always. She inherited nothing from her father... and earned her spurs herself.

    The same party... that is today headed by her widower and son. And which is being trashed as 'dynastic succession' and much worse... by analysts, writers, commentators, presswallas, tv-wallahs, thinktank-wallahs, etc, etc.

    It is not. If one thinks rationally... one will be able to understand the significance of this action (her will... where she nominated her husband as the leader... and which was subsequently ratified by her supporters and party leaders). What do you think is the significance of her actions... vis-a-vis Islam and Pak?? Especially in a deeply tribal, caste and class conscious Islamic society... ??? No wonder it is being trashed as 'dynastic succession' and 'dynastic rule'... and hastily swept under the carpet.

    Also... her husband... now widower was ridiculed for playing 2nd fiddle to a woman... when she was alive... and is being trashed as much worse... after her assassination. Why do you think this happened... ???

    Let me provide the answer. In a deeply tribal, caste and class conscious Islamic society she - an upper caste Muslim woman - a Rajput - married a man who was socially not her equal. Zardari means 'people with wealth' but they were originally camel herders.

    Ms. Bhutto was someone who truly lived up to her name. I have written 5 longish posts under the header 'Songs, Blood and Sword... Untruths, Half-truths and Fiction'. You will find them under Label 'Bhutto'. Do read them... if you have the time and patience :) there I discuss events pertaining to this part of the world and the 'great game'...

  6. @ Sandhyaji: P.S. Also... her decision to retain her maiden name... post marriage. Her wish/decision to be buried at her ancestral graveyard... not that of her husband’s... and that is where she lies buried. Plus... her widower’s public proclamation that he too wishes to be buried beside her... at her ancestral graveyard... after his death. What do these actions mean? What is their symbolic value? None of that is ever touched upon... galti se bhi... by the media-wallas, political commentators, analysts, et al. The only thing that is bandied about (even in the international media) is that... being a graduate of Harvard and Oxford... she assented to an arranged match. Ha!

  7. @Roshmi As usual Informative post and posted comments on the post
    Personally I have never been able to make out much from parliamentary proceedings except on the budget day.(Sometimes it does have some comic value ).
    Gaffing has always been Prince Philip forte . "Vastly exaggerated " were the words he used on an official visit to describe the Jallianwala Bagh massacre .Besides he is notorious for mixing up the word "famous" with notorious.The phrases like "Your country is notorious for......." can only be expected from comic Royals.

  8. You are an expert in politics, Roshmi! I admire you now!

    Yes, I read and forget very easily! Maybe I don't give much importance. I admired Ms. Bhutto for her guts - being a muslim, she had become the head of a muslim country.

    This post is interesting and I read every word here, thank you and forwarded this post to my sons too.

  9. Loved the article, Roshmi! Who wrote this? Jayanti Natrajan? To think I hate the lady otherwise, when she comes on TV debates! ;)

  10. @ Sunil-ji: Yes... Prince Philip is the Emperor of gaffes... and is truly the 'clown prince'. But... it may be a carefully cultivated image. What?

    Yes... budget speeches provide their share of comic relief. Lalu entertained us while presenting the railway budget. But then... he too has cultivated the image of the 'buffoon'... while there is a shrewd mind ticking away between his ears.

    A sample of his speech... while he presented the Budget:

    He recited a Hindi poem to convey his achievements and describe the much-talked-about turnaround of the railways:

    "Sab kah rahe hain humne gazab kaam kiya hai,
    Karoron ka munafa har ek shaam diya hai,
    Phal salon yeh ab dega, paudha jo lagaya hai,
    Sewa ka, samarpan ka, humne farz nibhaya hai,"

    as the House burst into laughter.

  11. @ Sandhya-ji: Thank you Sandhyaji... for those kind words. *I'm taking a bow*

    ... but I'm no expert :)

  12. @Roshmi: true, you know while translating it in English he says "Every body is appreaciating I have planed a fruuut tareee (fruit tree )and I have earned crores and crores everyday "

    Yes He knows his tomfoolery appeals to his chief audiences .
    Off budget days half of the parliament is seen taking a nap, may be they are catching up on the last night sleep in the morning session . In the afternoon session they have all the right to well earned siesta after the 12 Rs Thali meal that they get in parliament cafeteria. That is the reason they never get the idea about the plight of a common man....

  13. loved reading it..a wonderful article. also liked the discussion in the comments.

  14. @ Sunilji: Well our netas lead a charmed life... they are 'entitled' to it anyways... 'coz they 'serve' the people and the nation...

  15. @ Reema: Thanks girl! Glad you enjoyed reading this post :)