Island Banquet

As happens two or three times a year, I was invited to a state banquet on Thursday. This was being held by President Pranab Mukherjee for his newly-elected counterpart from the Maldives, Yaamin Abdul Gayoom. 

My sense was that this was a necessary bit of confidence-building for the two countries, Gayoom making sure India was the first country he would visit, and New Delhi getting a chance to remind him of India’s interests in this scattered archipelago nation, strategically athwart the Indian Ocean. After all, the Maldivian presidential election was far from controversy-free. The incumbent had come to power by a quasi-coup, and the election had been repeatedly postponed by a Supreme Court known to be composed of Gayoom loyalists in order that the eventful winner would strike a deal with the number three candidate. All a bit murky and Maldivian, and definitely legally questionable, given the deep personal divisions that mark the politics of this tiny (population-wise) nation. Said one ex-ambassador to Male, “Some 26 families run the whole country.”

I was number 40 in the order of protocol when the assembled guests were lined up in the Ashoke Hall to shake the chief guest’s hand. Gayoom smiled and said, “Happy New Year,” when I murmured welcoming noises. Mukherjee, during his toast, made the normal nice noises that are made at state banquets. But I noticed that more than a few lines were about Indian Ocean security and included un-banquet like language like “maritime domain awareness” and “naval surveillance.” I conjectured that it was being underlined to Gayoom that the naval understandings India had struck with the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the past were things upon which New Delhi expected policy continuity.

A number of Indian businessmen were seated at the banquet. Anecdotally, I got the sense that especially infrastructure and housing firms tended to cluster in an area ranging from Sri Lanka to Ethiopia and East Africa, a wedge of the Indian Ocean littoral area. Inevitably, the Andhra infrastructure firm GMR was well-represented. Though GMR seems set to exit the Male airport, this will take some untangling. New Delhi has ensured that both sides have taken it to arbitration. But the Maldivian government is caught in a cul de sac. If it wins the arbitration case, it will need to compensate GMR a whopping sum of money — which the Maldives doesn’t have. The Maldivians claim they can run the airport, but few believe this. This could mean, the Indian system worries, a third party coming in, possibly one loaded with renminbi.

Rashtrapati Bhavan food is not the greatest, though the Goan fish curry was passable. Though President Mukherjee is known to roll out an excellent Bengali repast when he travels around the country, foreign guests get a pan-Indian spread where variety tends to overwhelm quality. But state banquets aren’t about culinary stuff — they are about pomp, circumstance, and a chance to get a bit of capitol gossip.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times

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