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The revenge of the veg bhavan

Gujarat Bhavan in New Delhi. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi, May 18: For years, Gujarat Bhavan in Delhi could do little but munch on its vegetarian fare and envy the reign of Andhra Bhavan, the badshah of bhavans that is built on a menu of unrivalled mutton fry.

These days, Gujarat Bhavan has something Andhra Bhavan cannot serve up: Narendra Modi.

With Modi staying in the bhavan — possibly till the Prime Minister’s residence on the nearby Race Course Road is ready — the three-storey structure has been drawing a steady stream of visitors.

Sunday’s guests included Ananth Kumar, who made Nandan Nilekani eat humble pie in Bangalore, fellow Kannadiga B.S. Yeddyurappa, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio and BJP ally Ram Vilas Paswan, whose son persuaded his father to take a gamble that paid off after Rahul Gandhi played hard to get.

The line-up almost matched the melting-pot clientele that Andhra Bhavan draws — and chances are that some of the Gujarat Bhavan visitors were on the lookout for spoils juicier than the dishes on the canteen menu.

Gujarat Bhavan had hardly figured on the political radar until Modi started camping there whenever he came down from Gandhinagar. The three-storey structure, built on a gentle ascent on Kautilya Marg in Lutyens’s Delhi, became out of bounds for the general public whenever Modi checked into the chief minister’s suite.

The 4km stretch of Kautilya Marg houses numerous state bhavans: Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Odisha, Bihar — which was in the news a few years ago when a dog’s carcass was found in a functioning water tank atop the building — among others.

In normal times, Gujarat Bhavan is not exactly a draw unlike the Andhra, Banga, Goa or Tamil Nadu Bhavans whose canteens, open to the public, serve regional cuisine hard to beat for authenticity, variety and taste.

Gujarat Bhavan, with its vegetarian menu, can hardly be said to pander to Delhi’s robust palates brought up on butter chicken, korma and biryani. Lately, the canteen staff have scaled down the sugar quotient of the Gujarati daal and kadhi that makes them the scourge of diabetics.

Andhra Bhavan actually serves a vegetarian thali but what makes it stand apart is the dry mutton fry that can be ordered separately and has tickled non-vegetarian taste buds from across the country.

Not that the house of Andhra has built its reputation solely on its culinary credentials. The bhavan was also the command post for politics in the past. It was from here that then CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu had in 1996 planned and executed their blueprint for a “secular” United Front to stymie a BJP that had emerged the largest party.

Andhra Bhavan then worked as a safe house for Samajwadi MPs, who included the late Phoolan Devi. The Samajwadi Party was paranoid about the BJP poaching on its members.

Gujarat Bhavan has had no such exciting past, perhaps largely because the state’s politics has been dominated by a single party, the BJP, for over two decades and by a single individual, Modi, the last 13 years.

Now and then, though, some event or circumstance raises a few ripples in its staid interiors — such as when it became Amit Shah’s temporary home. This was when the Supreme Court had barred Shah from entering Gujarat while an Ahmedabad court dealt with the fake encounter killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Kauser Bi.

Notwithstanding the legal proceedings in which he was a respondent, everyone in the BJP recognised Shah as a power centre in a Modi dispensation.

As always, it was the bureaucracy that read the tea leaves right first. Once signs of Modi’s possible pre-eminence in national politics emerged, the bhavan became a draw for Delhi’s power elite, principally from the bureaucracy. Officials regularly called on resident commissioner Bharat Lal who, the speculation goes, is set to be part of Modi’s Prime Minister’s Office.

Modi’s biggest contribution to the bhavan so far had been the smart glass front and the landscaping of the rolling lawns.

Now, of course, he has transformed the bhavan’s profile, as can be seen from his posters, which stand as signposts of sorts on the road to 7 Race Course Road, just about a kilometre away.


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