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SWARAJISTS AT THE SAVOY
- Like Napoleon's army, diplomacy also marches on its stomach

In Paris, during the students' riots of the late Sixties, a pretty young Indian girl, now high in the Communist hierarchy, smoked foul-smelling French Gauloise cigarettes because they reminded her of Char Minars. That was style. Back home in those years of austerity-fed 'craze for foreign' (as a V.S. Naipaul character put it), fashionable Indian women claimed to put up with Char Minars only because the roasted tobacco was like Gauloise. That was fashion.

In childhood's innocence, we talked virtuously of eating to live as against the greed of those who lived to eat, little knowing then how sombrely people take food, drink and tobacco. Habit does come in, but many consume to make a statement, personal or political. The personal is quickly disposed of. Someone who lacks both style and fashion but has money must advertise his wealth, regardless of taste, through the wine, cigars or chocolates he buys.

Hence the efflorescence in India of brand goods shops. But politics decides what is eaten, what is not, and also the gastronomic rituals that began in the West with the Greeks but became modern practice in 15th-century Italy, according to the social historian, Costas Constantinou. It also makes a point: Sweden has thwarted Israeli expansionism by labelling wine from the Golan Heights as made in 'Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.'

Though last Thursday's finalization of the Great British Menu in honour of Queen Elizabeth's 80th birthday did not include the 'national dish', chicken tikka masala, wealthy subcontinental donors to the party kitty were assured that curry would not be left out. When the judges decided against the spiced crab that Atul Kochar, the chef who didn't make it to the finals, offered for starters, it was not because haldi and dhunya are Indian. They are the acceptable taste of Empire. But Kochar's soft shell crabs were American, which wouldn't do. Gastronomic defiance compensates for subservience in Iraq.

Politics encourages culinary posturing. The custodians of William Pitt's reputation changed his deathbed hankering for meatpies into a lofty tribute to England. But being a Communist and not a gentleman, Eric Hobsbawm spilled the beans on a Bengali Communist's turkey Christmas dinner in his honour. Similarly, Indira Gandhi's admirers spoke of her attachment to sabzi and dal though Pupul Jayakar says soup, salad and sweet were more like it. Presumably, sabzi and dal are also officially Sonia Gandhi's favourites: it would probably be a capital offence to mention pasta. Britain's beleaguered John Prescott let it be known that his wife cooked a Lancashire hotpot (culinary equivalent of a 'bloke of the people' ' his self-description) for his birthday.

Visiting Balliol, I always wonder where precisely Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's goat was tethered. Hearing that Gandhi was fussy, the Master's wife, Mrs A.D. Lindsay, ordered a hamper from Fortnum & Mason. It was quickly hushed up to avert another satyagraha, and the detective attached to Gandhi got the goat. Morarji Desai also knew the value of distinctive foibles. I had to step smartly aside once as the breakfast trolley trundled out of his suite at London's Savoy. Apparently, the gleaming domed silver covers that invited a quick peek concealed only nuts and honey. It must have cost a great deal to keep Desai in simplicity.

All politicians excel at expensive modesty. At a fabulous banquet in the Elys'e Palace, Harold Wilson reputedly sent an aide down to the kitchen to present his compliments to the master chef and could he have the HP sauce please' Jacques Pompidou, his host, realised Wilson wasn't going to miss any chance of invoking the schoolboy from Huddersfield photographed posing outside 10 Downing Street.

Last week, the England World Cup team followed that down-to-earth precedent. They could have wallowed in the gourmet catering of the Michelin-starred French restaurant of the Buthlerhohe Schlosshotel where they stayed. Not a bit of it. Nouvelle cuisine is only for David Beckham's strictly private bashes at the posh country house that people call 'Beckingham Palace'. Publicly, the footballers gorged on mounds of rice pudding, Jaffa cakes and plain English muffins, washing it down with gallons of Ribena and orange cordial, all flown out from Britain.

Simpler folk might demand coffee beans to be roasted and ground in their presence or for the china teapot to be scalded before the finest first flush Darjeeling is spooned in. The footballers had Nescaf' sachets and thousands of teabags and long-life milk sachets. Five years ago, cans of baked beans (Heinz Meanz Beanz) were exported for the England players at Euro 2000. Fish fingers were sent out for the 1970 squad. Cricketers can afford elaborate fare; those who play the people's game must be like our swarajists.

Menus being so artful, I wonder what was served when Gandhi invited himself to his awestruck British detective's home for tea. Or when Murli Manohar Joshi, the picture of immaculate orthodoxy and naturally a strict vegetarian, invited Paul Wolfowitz to breakfast at his Washington hotel' And how did the menu for the Pakistani-Americans' $1,000-a-plate dinner to raise money for Hillary Clinton's campaign differ from similar Indian-American events' Fate has been cruel to Pakistan ever since it forced Mohammed Ali Jinnah to disguise his palate. About to declare his fondness for Washington's Indian restaurants, a prominent Pakistani diplomat spied me in the senior common room of an Oxford college and quickly changed it to 'South Asian restaurants'. Bangladeshi leaders were concerned about the loyalty of a political activist who gave up beef under the influence of Hindu fellow-radicals.

The Clintons are the ultimate in gastronomic diplomacy. She tucked into sikandari raan (her favourite she confessed), murg malai kebab, tandoori prawn and dal Bukhara at the Maurya Sheraton. He drank Kashmiri brick tea ' kahwa ' at the hotel's carpet shop. Without a political axe to grind, his mother drove to the Basil and Thyme restaurant for carrot and potato soup and pasta with meat sauce. Back at the hotel, a chef complained that security personnel watched a croissant for 72 hours before it was deemed safe enough for a VIP. It needed a politician (Ajit Panja) to assure Strobe Talbott that a jalebi is less crooked than it looks.

The Clintons' gastronomic finesse had already been displayed during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit. They flaunted their guest's colours with a saffron pudding shaped like a lotus. But determined not to put all their political eggs in one pudding, the Clintons prudently laid out another cake shaped like a white tiger in green foliage. Vajpayee may not even have been aware when his guests were served sambhar instead of soup at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. But no one was in the soup. Certainly not the two Indian chefs, Satish Arora and Hemant Oberoi, whose masala prawn, bhindi piyazwali and akuri were a hit with the American kitchen staff. Like Napoleon's army, diplomacy also marches on its stomach.

If meals create problems, they offer solutions too. Pranab Mukherjee could have demonstrated displeasure at the American refusal to support India for the security council by refusing food at Warren Christopher's lunch when Madeleine Albright broke the news. That would have been the correct response according to the treaties of Westphalia and Vienna. But the canny Yanks may have kept the bad news for the coffee, presuming both sides were familiar with gastronomic etiquette.

Constantinou anticipated such encounters when he wrote that 'a dinner may also be a way of initiating or resisting diplomatic acts'. Sadly, his example confirms an altogether different point. He cites Hope Cooke, former Gyalmo of Sikkim, as saying the Gangtok palace preferred buffets because cordons of durbari officials could then corner guests and channel the conversation. Alas, they were not up to either. Even if they had had the skill, power would have decided the outcome. So, too, with security council hopes. Mukherjee might have starved for all Christopher and Albright cared.

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