Tea in Track II – Narendra Modi connects to Barack Obama with cuppa of wisdom


By Madhusree Chatterjee

Track two point zero (2.0) between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the favourite pin-up hero of the Bharatiya Janata Party and “Dilwale (warm-hearted)” Barack Obama, the President of United States opened with “chai” (tea) in the Indian capital of New Delhi, a day before the 66th Republic Day on January 26, 2015.

“Chai Pe Charcha” was the leitmotif of the three-day official visit of the “Obamas” to India, ostensibly to officiate as the chief guest of the Republic Day celebrations. “Teaboy” Modi – the man from the backwaters of Gujarat who rose across the political ranks from his humble beginning as a tea boy from Mehsana district in Gujarat put his “desi” (native) diplomatic signature on the “cuppa of wisdom” that he shared with Obama to open his “chaale saath saath”  (together we go) at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi in the much-hyped “Chai Pe Charcha”. He followed it up with “At Home” – an evening of tea and snacks – at the Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s Home) on a muggy Monday evening in the misty portals of the capital and a “Man Ki Baat” – a candid conversation with the “aam admi (common man)”, true to the spirit of the “chai (tea)” on radio.  Diplomacy had never felt so homegrown.

Tea has rarely figured in Track II that Narendra Modi and Barack Obama picked up as the thread from their last meeting in United States when Narendra Modi was invited to address a large audience at the Madison Square Garden in September 2014 in a historic visit by the Indian Prime Minister to United States. Obama returned Modi’s overture with his reciprocal visit Jan 25-28.

Tea is integral to Oriental mysticism – the leaves are known to divine destinies; while among the Zen Buddhist monks of Japan and China, partaking of the brew is an elaborate ritual. The traditional Oriental tea ceremony – often known as the “Chadao” (cha as tea and “dao” – a Chinese term suggesting the way of the tea or teasim as a code of life) was practised to foster harmony with nature and humanity, discipline, quietitude of heart and attain purity of enligtenment. A tea ceremony is premised on the theological principles of “sabi” and “wabi”. “Wabi” represents the inner or spiritual expriences of life while “sabi” is associated with the external material “imperfections” that humanity tries to redress.

In the ancient hinterlands of the Indo-Chine region, savouring of the brew is presided over by a “master of tea ceremonies” – a spiritual guru well versed in the wisdom of the leaf.

At the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, President Barack Obama was undoubtedly the master of the tea ceremony, though host Narendra Modi lived up to his reputation as the astute “tea boy” – out to wheedle maximum possible trade and bilateral leverages from the helmsman of the world’s power behemoth. Tea, on its part, brought out the best in Barack Obama – an affable and informal persona – who let his banter set the tone of the parleys. As the two walked across the lush landscaped lawns of the Hyderabad House unescorted, “Barack”, as Modi referred to him in public and in the media – enquired about the Indian Prime Minister’s sleep patterns. “He gets even less sleep than me” – three hours of Modi’s versus Obama’s five hours. A chemistry fomented by tea, which the two drank in happy compatibility,  was evident in making. That “chemistry”, as the media screamed, paved the way for the nuclear deal to move to an understanding over liabilities, tracking and application – the focus shifting to commercial trading in N-components and civilian accruals rather than on “disarmament, proliferation and transparency”- gathering fresh steam from a 2008 agreement.

Tea wove its magic breaking through a six-year jinx in the India-US nuclear agreement – the foundations of which were laid during the regime of Obama’s predecessor President Bill Clinton in 2006 in New Delhi- and later in 2008 with the inking of the civilian nuclear energy pact.

The nuclear deal, being at the centre-stage of tea windfall, towed in its wake a torrent of business deals across development, public health, technology, defence and economic spectrums. President Obama granted concessions that the erstwhile Congress -led government in the country had been shedding its blood for in post-Taliban period (on virtue of Manmohan Singh government’s contribution to rebuilding of Pakistan in the last two decades) – more Indian leeway in Afghanistan in the current scenario much to the discomfiture of Pakistan which was told to put a tighter leash on terror import to its neighbour. The regional solidarity juggernaut elicited sharp reaction from China – which implored abstinence of force by any party in the south China sea.

Tea was the passport to the “shaan-e-dawat (dinner)” as well. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee hosted Barack Obama and wife Michelle to lavish banquet at the President’s House where the mood invoked by Modi’s “cuppa” was palpable in President Obama’s body language. Easy, guarded and completely in control- Obama even went out of his way to pat Modi on his back. Buddy ho… Bonhomie between two head of states over tea translates into bilateral bounties – but where does it put Modi’s India – not anywhere near the superpower. Modi has been assiduously wooing leaders of world powers – US, Japan, Russia and China alike.

This tightrope strategy places Modi on the precipice of uncomfortable pulls by disparate power blocs. The fact that Modi like his “predecessor” Manmohan Singh is not a seasoned diplomat from Ivy League grooves, Oxford and Harvard, stands him at an disadvantage in his interfaces with diplomatic power brokers – when he is called to account for his allegiances and alliances. A belligerent Pakistan- after Modi was snubbed by Prime Minister Nawaz  Sharif at the UN General Assembly in 2014 despite a warm start-up – can consolidate Pakistan’s strategic engagement with China to thwart a possible cooperation bloc between India, US and allies over Afghanistan and terrorism. Professor Stephen F. Cohen, an American scholar of diplomatic studies prescribes engagement with China on an even keel – the prospect might go down as a sticky wicket for Barack Obama in the face of the new tea diplomacy.

Tea is a fluid brew.  In India, partakers of the brew still swear by its liquor, powered by milk and sugar. The liquor “chai” masks the delicate whiff of the flavours of the brew – sought after in the west. Diplomacy  is as delicate as the nuanced flavours of the “Darjeeling deluxe”. The fact that Modi was currying favours too many from a Barack Obama- supremely confident of himself as a Santa Claus armed with his box of chocolates – hinted at the chinks in the BJP’s infallible armour. The party, despite the electoral highs, is still insecure. The next poll could well be its undoing in a unipolar democracy that India has become today in the absence of an Opposition to speak of.

Naysayers, who predict decimation of the Congress, should not forget the fact that a fickle electorate could bring BJP down without caring for the consequences. Should Modi have gone slow? Why did it take Modi to push through the N-deal and not “any of his predecessors”. Is it the beginning of an unlikely friendship between ideologically  opposed forces? A look at the India-US relationship in the last six decades since the John F. Kennedy  years  in 1960s shows that clashing political perceptions did not stand in the way of broad understandings. Perhaps, we are witnessing the tentative beginning of the miracle of stable governance away from the Pandora’s Box of coalition politics that India had been forced to swallow under a Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime.

Is it tea- the great social equity dealer? The two leaders share striking similarities – of early chequered years to a slow climb through the brass and file. Analysts cite that a fraction of the chemistry could well lie in their humbling origins – a bond that probably goes deeper than bilateral friendship between two heads of states.

BJP has been traditionally pro-America, unlike the Congress which still nurtures a Socialist tilt. But Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have busted “BJP’s rigidity of isms” with his visit last year.

Foreign affair analysts say the “wide NRI (non-resident Indian) lobby- loyal to BJP- in the United States” has a key role in pushing the Track Two to an “intriguing” level of intimacy. The Indian fund-raising axis over the last decade has become a hefty power platform with increasing voice vote in the tide of US electoral politics and foreign polity.  President Barack Obama cannot afford to rub this lobby the wrong way.  The influence of this lobby was never more apparent than in this visit of the President of United States to India – the caucus is forcing a tilt in US policy in the Af-Pak-India sector; bringing engagements in defence and polity with India to the forefront to contain terror and keep the American pulse on the regional cooperation in the sub-continent in a marginal break of its earlier approach of a primarily trade-oriented bilateral relationship with India. The US even till last year 2014 had been firm in its support to Pakistan’s defence and economy despite possessing “evidence of terrorist activity on its soil after the war on Osama bin-Laden outside Abottabad”. Diplomacy has never been so easy and yet so conflicting in its signals to the world in the reign of Narendra Modi.

Tea, however, has been the thread running across every foreign VIP visit in India under Modi’s umbrella. A cuppa- and the chemistry blooms. Russian President Vladimir Putin was no exception “over the warm cup tea with Modi” at the Hyderabad House – where the duo addressed business in diamonds.

And Barack Obama, the messiah President, who pulled the United States out from its worst financial low since the Great Depression, could not but succumb to Modi’s “chai”- awed by the Indian Prime Minister’s salt-of the earth superfluous charms. Rarely did Obama let the “diplomatic guard” seep into the warm facade that he wore for three-days in the Indian capital.

Patterns in the tea-cup point to the shape of things to come in the future- this friendship could well be a calm before a storm or a strange honeymoon. The region of Asia-Pacific is known to rustle up its share of hurricanes – when the tigers and dragons are stoked to anger. Tea then can at best warm the cockles of rain-washed hearts, it cannot change the course of history.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at chatterjeemadhusree@gmail.com)


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