Jeremy Au Yong, Us Bureau Chief, Washington

Why Modi fasted while Obama feasted: diplomatic hunger games

US President Barack Obama smiles as he hosts a meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama smiles as he hosts a meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
In this photograph released by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB) on Sept 30, 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre, left middle section of table) sits across from US President Barack Obama with Indian and US dignitaries, including
In this photograph released by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB) on Sept 30, 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre, left middle section of table) sits across from US President Barack Obama with Indian and US dignitaries, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, during a private dinner function at the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

Avocado with goat cheese and bell peppers, served with roti crisps; crisped halibut with a ginger carrot sauce and saffron basmati rice; and mango creme brulee - this three-course dinner was served at the White House last week in honour of visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr Modi, however, did not eat a bite. He was in the middle of a nine-day all-liquid fast.

The sight of the Indian leader drinking warm water throughout a working dinner two weeks ago, while United States President Barack Obama and about two dozen guests from both delegations feasted, was one of the more curious spectacles in a visit chock-full of spectacle.

Yet, it also poses a diplomatic curiosity. Eating before a fasting guest is as much a diplomatic faux pas as it is a personal one. No ordinary person would invite a fasting guest to dinner, so how did a planning committee that had been, for months, pouring over every minute detail of this visit let this one through?

Why not have a meeting that did not involve a meal?

The answer may well be that this "non-dinner" went ahead because both sides felt there was political mileage to be gained.

This was not a detail that simply fell through the cracks. It was clear well ahead of Mr Modi's visit that it would coincide with his annual "Navratri" fast. Navratri, or nine nights in Sanskrit, is a major festival in India and marks an important period in the Hindu calendar. For the nine days, many Hindus take only liquids.

Ms Caitlin Hayden, senior director for strategic communications at the White House, told reporters a week before the visit that the administration was prepared for this.

"We are aware of the Prime Minister's plans to fast during his visit to Washington. As with all guests hosted by US presidents over the years, we always work to respectfully accommodate the practices of our visitors," she said.

By all accounts, Indian officials had also urged their hosts to persist with dinner. According to Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin, Mr Modi himself tolddiners: "Please don't feel embarrassed and please continue with your food."

And the benefits of the meal to Mr Modi's image in India soon became evident. Whether this was a matter of luck or clever design by a savvy politician, it served to burnish Mr Modi's Hindu credentials and reinforce his image as a humble, disciplined leader.

Newspapers in India wrote glowing articles about the Prime Minister's fast. For instance, an article in the Times of India headlined "Narendra Modi hasn't eaten in four days, baffles Americans with vigour", extolled the remarkable strength the leader was showing on a visit that involved 36meetings in five days.

"How the Prime Minister is pulling off this feat and the physiology involved is something that deserves to be studied regardless of one's personal pathology towards him," it said.

Still, none of this is to suggest that the White House simply went along with a India-planned publicity stunt.

There is also the very real possibility that the fast allowed both the US and India to sidestep the somewhat thorny issue of the White House not wanting to grant Mr Modi a state dinner.

While both sides have moved quickly after the elections to set aside issues of Mr Modi's decade-long visa ban - and there are compelling pragmatic reasons to do so - it is no secret there remains lingering doubt in some quarters of the administration about how warmly to embrace the new Indian prime minister. Similarly, large segments of the US population remain doubtful about Mr Modi.

Indeed, while Mr Modi drew a large crowd of supporters to Madison Square Garden on his visit, his other stops were often accompanied by a mix of small bands of fans and groups of protesters upset about his human rights record.

US officials are said to have rejected the idea of a state dinner for Mr Modi on the basis that the president, not the prime minister, is considered the head of state of India.

Yet, this did not stop Mr Obama from throwing a lavish, star-studded state dinner in 2009 for another Indian PM - Mr Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh. That dinner, the first ever hosted by Mr Obama, cost over US$570,000 ($728,000)and remains among the most expensive the US president has ever held.

The idea of eating in front of a fasting Indian PM might thus have served as a sufficient snub for the White House to appease those who still oppose Mr Modi, while at the same time allowing the administration to roll out the red carpet in other ways.

At the end of the visit, it seems the unusual dining arrangement has not impeded the US-India relationship. Pundits generally agree that the visit successfully re-energised ties that had suffered several setbacks in recent months.

Food has long roots in international diplomacy. Many a relationship has been formed by leaders breaking bread together. The peculiar circumstances of Mr Modi and Mr Obama perhaps show that bonds can be built at the dining table, even if one side doesn't eat.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg