New Delhi, Feb. 16: The Americans have accomplished what should rank among missions impossible: find a weakness of the inscrutable and incorruptible Manmohan Singh. But contender Narendra Modi is unlikely to draw too much attention to it.
Singh has been quietly building a collection of teacups, saucers and pots that he received as gifts from abroad and can be taken with him once he leaves 7 Race Course Road this May.
The cuppa has become a simmering pot in politics because of Modi’s refrain that he started out as a tea vendor. Aided by a tasteless repartee by a Congress leader, the BJP has launched a series of interactions with Modi titled Chai pe Charcha.
But a storm is not forecast in Singh’s teacups as he has gone by the book while retaining the gifted sets.
Singh, known for his frugal lifestyle, has despatched to the government 38 of the 44 gifts he had received from heads of state and government, ambassadors and other foreign visitors since July last year.
The gifts forwarded to the toshakhana, a repository managed by the external affairs ministry, include a Rs 9-lakh Rolex watch, a Rs 1.2-lakh jewellery set, a Rs 35,000 bracelet, and a Mughal-era coin Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Singh last October.
All the six gifts Singh has taken home are tea sets.
None of the tea sets is that expensive. They are valued below Rs 5,000 — the limit above which the recipients will have to pay the difference if they want to retain them, according to government documents listing gifts from foreigners declared by all Indian officials and representatives between July and December 2013.
Singh’s choices offer a rare peek into the Prime Minister’s private life and preferences, which he has kept away from the limelight despite holding the top job for 10 years.
“I can tell you that Dr Singh and Mrs Gursharan Kaur greet personal guests with tea at their home,” a close friend of the Prime Minister’s family told The Telegraph. “I can’t say why the Prime Minister has chosen tea sets, but yes, I’ve always felt that Mrs Kaur, in particular, has an affinity for tea.”
Singh, too, drinks tea but with artificial sweeteners as he is diabetic, said an official who has travelled with the Prime Minister on several trips.
Such everyday habits tickle the imagination of those entrusted with the delicate task of choosing gifts for international guests.
“Nations spend weeks figuring out the best gift for a leader,” a former chief of protocol at the external affairs ministry said. “Diplomatic politeness mandates that the leader will accept every gift from the foreign dignitary but the smartest foreign diplomats try to follow up on what the leader does with it afterwards, to evaluate whether it resonated as a gift.”
India, for instance, discreetly enquired about what President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden may like, when Obama hosted Singh to his first state dinner after taking office in 2009.
Eventually, Singh gifted the well-read Obama five books, including an English translation of the Panchatantra, the stylish Michelle a beige pashmina shawl and the folksy Biden a statue of a jungle fowl rooster.
It wasn’t easy tracking the Indian Prime Minister’s likes initially, said a diplomat from a west European nation. “For much of the first term under Manmohan Singh, no one — not even many Indian diplomats — had figured out appropriate gifts for him,” the diplomat said.
Eventually, the Americans made a breakthrough — not because of the cloak-and-dagger stuff usually associated with the CIA but because of their First Lady.
When Singh and Kaur visited Pittsburgh in September 2009 for the G20 summit, Michelle gifted the spouse of each visiting leader a porcelain tea set inspired by the gold-and-purple White House china that Abraham Lincoln and his wife had used over 150 years earlier.
“The Prime Minister’s wife, we understood, really appreciated that gift,” an American official said. “That’s when we realised we had finally found something that may work well as a gift. And then, the word slowly spread in the diplomatic world.”
When German chancellor Angela Merkel visited India in May 2011, she brought a Meissen tea set for Singh. It was one of only two gifts out of a total of 50 Singh received in 2011 that the Prime Minister took home with him, records show.
Not that all gifts can be carted away at will. When Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister, rules had been introduced to ensure government officials are not influenced by foreign powers. Accordingly, the Prime Minister, all other ministers, bureaucrats and important government representatives are required to declare gifts received from foreigners.
The declaration must be made to the toshakhana where customs officials examine the gift and ascribe a monetary value to it. Some gifts that have no tangible financial value are labelled with the tag of “no commercial value”.
If the estimated value is below a limit — which varies with the rank of the recipient — the recipient can take the gift free of cost. If the value is higher than the ceiling, the official can keep the gift by paying the balance amount to the government.
For the Prime Minister, the limit is Rs 5,000 — which means Singh has not had to pay for the six tea sets.
But the limit alone does not appear to be the reason behind the Prime Minister’s choices: among the gifts he forwarded to the repository are a wooden chest and a carpet that are not valued above Rs 5,000.