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Singh tea legacy awaits PM

A security cabin has come up at the main gate of 3 Motilal Nehru Marg, the new residence of Manmohan Singh. (PTI)

New Delhi, May 19: When Narendra Modi moves into the Prime Minister’s residence, he will find mementos harking back tangentially to a period of his own life he has repeatedly invoked on his journey to 7 Race Course Road — in the form of souvenirs left behind by his predecessor.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has left behind six tea sets, the only gifts from world leaders he brought home over the past year, at the official bungalow he vacated over the weekend.

Singh, who deposited all the other gifts he had received with a government treasure room known as the toshakhana, as The Telegraph reported on February 17, could under government rules have taken the tea sets with him to 3 Motilal Nehru Marg, his new residence.

But Modi, who in his election rallies and speeches highlighted how he sold tea at a railway station as a child, and his office can now use these cups and saucers to serve tea and coffee to guests.

“Dr Singh and Mrs (Gursharan) Kaur used these tea sets to welcome guests, and earlier this month, issued clear instructions that they would like these sets to stay behind for the new Prime Minister to use,” an aide told this newspaper.

Singh appears to have followed a tradition practised routinely by Presidents in the US — a country he has visited 10 times, more than any other nation, in his decade in office.

When American Presidents vacate office, their families take mementos from the White House only if they can find private sponsors to replace these — even if the mementos were meant specifically for them, or designed at their instructions.

In India, according to veteran protocol officers, it is rare for a Prime Minister or President to leave behind the handpicked gifts he chose to retain in the first place.

Former President Pratibha Patil infamously carted off mementos from Rashtrapati Bhavan to be put in a museum in her native Amravati before she was asked by the government to return them.

Apart from the tea sets, Singh has also left behind for Modi a cricket bat he received as a gift from British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.

Singh has never been known to show much interest in sports. Modi, on the other hand, heads the Gujarat Cricket Association.

Technically, the gifts Singh received were for the person holding the office of India’s Prime Minister — and not for him in his personal capacity.

But diplomatic services across the world spend a significant amount of time and resource thinking up gifts that the would-be recipient head of government or state would personally appreciate and remember.

“The idea is to tell the head of government that the gift isn’t just a formality but a token of friendship that the recipient would like and, so, remember,” a former chief of protocol at India’s external affairs ministry said.

“Trust me, missions here in New Delhi would have started dissecting Modi’s possible preferences even before he has been sworn in.”

If Modi chooses to stay opaque about those preferences the way Singh did for many years, diplomats and foreign leaders may struggle.

Cameron’s choice of a cricket bat may not have made an impact on Singh, who never visited the United Kingdom after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government came to power in 2010 although Cameron has visited India thrice in this period.

The Americans discovered a gift that did make a mark when they noted Kaur’s appreciation of a porcelain tea set gifted by US First Lady Michelle Obama to the spouses of G20 leaders at a meeting in Pittsburg in September 2009.

Others — including German Chancellor Angela Merkel — followed up with tea sets as gifts to Singh over the past five years.

Gifts received from foreign dignitaries must be deposited by the recipient with the toshakhana, where they are valued by customs officials. Government officials are entitled to retain gifts up to a value specific to their rank and can take home more costly gifts by paying the difference.

But Singh, who could retain gifts valued up to Rs 5,000 without any additional payment, returned every gift he received, even if it was valued below this limit, over the past year — except the six tea sets.

“There’s a thrill to figuring out what works as a gift for a foreign dignitary, to knowing what’s at the least a safe gift,” a diplomat from a western European nation said.

“Now, with the new Indian Prime Minister coming in, we’ll have to start over again.”