The comment riled up Indians and birthed its own #idligate, with many schooling him on how idlis are a favourite even with the US Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris, who inherited a love for the meal, from her mother during their holidays in Chennai. Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor, also took a chivalrous approach and invited the scholar to his house for a plate of idlis.
Setting idlis aside, food, in general, has been an intrinsic part of politics globally, both in war and peacetime. In 2003, when a US-led contingent of nations proposed to invade Iraq as part of then-President George W Bush’s War on Terror, France, a long-time ally of the US, objected to the move. And a Republican leader embarked on a politically motivated rebranding of French fries across the US. Starting with three Congressional cafeterias, several restaurants across America changed their menus and began calling the food Freedom Fries. As support for the war waned, the US reverted to the old name.
Closer home, in Salem, a BJP functionary last month unveiled the Modi Idli, a plate of four priced at Rs 10. The packaging is a war cry of sorts lobbed at the popular Amma idlis which are priced at Re 1 per idli and are offered at the AIADMK-run Amma Unavagams across Tamil Nadu. The timing seems appropriate as political parties across TN are attempting to score brownie points with the masses, through initiatives to build a recall of who did what during the pandemic, in time for the 2021 Assembly elections.
Food has often been used as a tool of soft diplomacy too. The curiosity aroused by the menu put together by the host nation when international heads of states visit these shores is a testament to the importance of this little bonding ritual. In Oct 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping had visited Mahabalipuram and engaged with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an informal summit. Any inkling of the conflagration that would ensue many months later between India and China in the backdrop of the Ladakh stand-off was temporarily dunked in steaming hot bowls of sambar, accompanied by thakali rasam and karuvepillai meen varuval, a special curry leaf fish preparation.
Similar culinary courtesies were extended to the PM himself when he landed in Houston, Texas for the Howdy Modi extravaganza in September 2019. Indian origin chef Kiran Verma, had curated a handpicked selection of Gujarati specialties including Methi Thepla and Khandvi, along with Dal Rice and Gajar (carrot) Halwa as part of the PM’s menu. Modi’s visit was aimed at strengthening strategic partnership between the two nations while finding ways to deepen their collaboration in trade and energy. Modi even went on to endorse Trump in his bid for re-election in 2020, borrowing from his own campaign catchphrase – Abki baar, Trump Sarkar (This time, its Trump for Govt).
However, COVID-19 seems to have left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths as Trump threatened India with retaliation over the export of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) in April. He followed it up by lambasting the country last month during the Presidential debate with Joe Biden, questioning the accuracy of India’s COVID death toll and its role in air pollution.
It might be a while before heads of states of various nations begin entertaining their global counterparts with lavish dinners and buffets reminiscent of pre-COVID times. But in all probability, this interval of
cooling off might serve as a reminder of all that is lost, when nations and leaders find themselves unable to reach out to one another. And it begs the notion – if only maintaining international relations were as simple as putting together a pot luck party.