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The great Indian sarkari protocol

india Updated: Aug 07, 2011 02:16 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Pakistan foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar said she resented being called a fashion icon when she returned home from her official trip to India last week. But by flaunting her South Sea pearls, Roberto Cavalli shades and Birkin bag while on an official visit, she broke one of the sacred rules of Indian sarkari protocol. Here’s a quick rundown of these unwritten rules of decorum and display which most Indian politicos and diplomats are more than familiar with — if only because there's normally a media storm if they are ever broken.
(with inputs from Pramit Pal Chaudhuri)

Thou Shalt Sweat in Thick Cloth
Temperate diplomacy practiced in tropical weather is a tradition that should not be broken

Some facets of protocol are as much perspiration as they are prescription. The reception at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan is a must-do event of any state visit. The visiting dignitary goes from there to Rajghat to pay tribute to the father of the nation. Another time-honoured ritual is that All India Radio gets to pose a question to the visiting dignitary. It's not too hard to prepare for as it's always the same question: "What are your expectations from the visit?" While hoi polloi find it a bore, Indian officials defend the whole shebang saying, "In some ways it sets the ball rolling for a visit."

For those not used to Indian weather (and even those who are), here's the catch: Invariably the reception at the forecourt takes place at 9 am on summer days and 10 am in the winter.

Things can get really sweaty in summer, especially given the diplomatic preference for black cloth, stiff collars and ties. But diplomats are often urged to dress dark — it may be scientifically silly but darks hide spreading sweat stains. Recently a visiting Central Asian dignitary gave the media a 10-minute speech on his expectations, leaving lensmen with great pictures of lines of drippy VIPs mopping their brows. Though Indian officials signalled to their counterparts, no one mustered the courage to stop him midway.

Thou Shalt Travel Frugally
So your domestic constituency doesn't think their taxes are being wasted

This is an ever-shifting rule, but it more or less follows this logic: if you're travelling on the government's money, you must never wear pearls, Prada or things that customs officers would pounce on if you landed at an Indian airport.

Sometimes this Indian determination to not spend too much takes twists other governments gawk at. Unlike the leaders of, say, Russia or the US, the Indian prime minister often trundles around in a car provided by the host country when he goes overseas. The only requirement being that it be bulletproof. During the recent Africa-India Forum, Manmohan Singh ended up being ferried around in a less-than-dignified armoured SUV. His aides shrug, "He wants the work to be done. He never cares for any sort of comfort," one said.

Post note: You can cock a snook at this rule if you're Mayawati — but then again, its because she's from an underprivileged background, has a voter base who don't give a damn and her display of diamonds is a sign of empowerment, not snobbery.

Thou Shalt be India-Specific in Giving Gifts
Sometimes the gifts can be tailor made to a particular person

The deputy chief of protocol, privileges and immunities (yes, there is such a designation), in consultation with the senior officials and often the prime minister's wife, decides on the gifts given to a visiting dignitary or to be handed out when the Indian prime minister travels abroad.

The gifts are exchanged through the protocol division. There's a simple rule here: a gift must always be something unique about India. That isn't too hard, given the richness of India's handicrafts. A hexagonal marble table inlaid with Mughal motifs was given to President Jakaya Kikeweteb of Tanzania during a recent visit. The prime minister gave a burgundy rug with a foliate motif to President Barack Obama when he went to the US in 2009.

Apart from that, there are pool gifts — those meant for chauffeurs and so on. These are almost always watches. What some dignitaries do get, taste and customs rules allowing, is crates of Alphonso mangoes. The old Soviet leadership used to be so fond of them that India would fly them to Moscow on a regular basis, irrespective of whether a trip was taking place or not. Occasionally, India can give something that's person-specific. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on his ground-breaking trip to Lahore brought a stack of video-discs of Dev Anand films for Nawaz Sharif. He also brought Dev Anand with him — but Sharif was not allowed to keep him.

Thou Shalt Master the Numerology of Hospitality
Protocol math is basic, but must never add up wrong

There a couple of numbers that are always kept in mind when Indian protocol officers work out the details of any visit.

The first is 38. This is the maximum number of people who can be accommodated at the biggest conference table at Hyderabad House — the venue for such things. During the recent visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this was not enough as she was heading a 25-member delegation.

Pakistan's Khar was an easy fit as her team was only 15 people.

The second is 11, or more accurately one plus 10. This is the formula New Delhi uses when it comes to how many people in a visiting delegation will be extended full hospitality — the cost, in other words, of stay as well as transportation. The first digit is the visiting dignitary, the second the number of delegates. Anything above that and the bill goes to the foreign government's embassy. There are exceptions, the most notable being that the countries in and around India are treated differently. In their case, hospitality is extended to the whole delegation as one would do to a neighbour.

"Getting a lavish hospitality is not in the mind of the Europeans or Americans. They are very business-like", says a seasoned serving diplomat.

Thou Shalt Spare Beast and Yeast
Indian diplomacy is 90% protocol, 10% veggies, and zero% meat and drink

Elsewhere in the world, alcohol is the life, blood and occasionally shame of diplomacy. But in India, where Nehruvian idealism shapes our foreign policy, Gandhian abstinence guides banquets as well.

Reciprocity is integral to bilateral ties, but the French can at best expect fruit juice from their Indian hosts even after serving the choicest chardonnays to Indian delegates in Paris.

Indian bureaucrats, unlike their bosses, can host cocktail parties. So there is an artful dodge in which the dry dinner invite comes from the minister, and another wetter one comes from the department secretary.

"It is difficult to answer why we do this. Well, perhaps because we are Indians!" says a government official.

At banquets, the menu is a product of exchanged preferences, especially if heads of state are involved. With Manmohan Singh, it is made clear he is a vegetarian who "occasionally" eats chicken and fish. The big no-nos for him, and almost all Indian diplomats, are beef and pork. In that way Indian demands are simple. But throwing an official meal can get quite complex. Some African leaders insist on food cooked by their wives. For Europeans, the Indian spread is made less spicy. The US president's chefs often replicate the official meal so it looks local but is actually all-American.

Our PM plays a similar chameleon game. A teetotaller, he nonetheless joins toasts where champagne is being raised. In his glass, however, the fluid is apple juice.

Thou Shalt Not Confuse Partners and Spouses
Legitimate wives and husbands only please

As the difference between certified spouses and common-law partners gets fuzzier, Indian officials get worry-lines whenever VIP couples make an appearance.

When French President Nicholas Sarkozy came as Republic Day guest three years ago he was not formally wedded to his partner, Carla Bruni. "Thank God, there was no formal request from the French side that the president be allowed to be accompanied by Bruni, his girlfriend," says an official. Under the tenets of protocol, as practiced by most countries including India, the definition of spouse doesn't include those who haven't taken vows and whatnot.

When Prince Charles came for the Commonwealth Games inauguration, initially Indian protocol said his wife Camilla would be treated as a private citizen. The British raised the roof, citing security reasons. Camilla, as the Duchess of Cornwall, was attending functions sans Charles. The prime minister's office ordered protocol to give way.

Once the official sanction is given, however, the couple can count on one unique Indian experience: the Taj Mahal. Sarkozy and Bruni spent the night in Agra. Vladimir Putin and his wife had a snap taken there — and it boosted his poll ratings back in Russia. The nightmare in waiting: some world leaders have more than one spouse. "Whoever among the spouses he chooses to bring is accorded the status of the spouse," says an official. If more than one comes? "Well, so far we haven't faced such a situation."

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