At Law Minister Salman Khurshid's party, there was a lavish spread of sweet mangoes and spicy gossip. Sheela Bhatt shares some notes from the soiree
New Delhi is not a city you will find easy to love if you are an outsider.
But on a sunny day like this -- when Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid and his wife Louise Fernandes laid out the haramazada of Meerut, langda of Maleehabad, chusni, chausa, baitul, suhag and dozen other varieties of the best North Indian mangoes at their Kushak Road residence for ministers, media personnel and even Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia -- you may be tempted to appreciate Delhi's geographical location that encourages such lovely varieties of fruits, vegetables, chaats, aloo tikkis and kulchas from North India.
Louise Fernandes is emerging as the best political host in town, giving tough competition to Bharatiya Janata Party leader Venkaiah Naidu and Congress leaders Sachin Pilot and Jaipal Reddy, who serve the best ethnic food when winter is at its peak in Delhi.
For the party, two dozen round tables were set up on the green lawns. A huge bucket full of mangoes and a knife were kept near each table. The guests were supposed to eat with their hands.
Only Anil Shastri, son of former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and a Congress leader, enjoyed the mango in a desi way. He softened the mango with his fingers and sucked the juice out, but only after spoiling the dress of a lady guest.
At the mango party thrown by Khurshid, the who's who of Congress and the government was present, except Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi.
Congress's strongmen Ahmed Patel and senior leaders Janardan Dwivedi and Digvijay Singh came in late but had their fill of mangoes, kebabs and chicken biryani.
Meanwhile, Union ministers like P Chidambaram, V Narayanswami and Rajiv Shukla were gheraoed by journalists.
But the event also proved that Khurshid, who had recently given a controversial interview about Rahul Gandhi to a national daily, had not fallen out of favour with the Congress high command. Kurshid had said Congress lacked an "ideological direction".
He was bold enough to say, "We have only seen cameos of his (Rahul Gandhi's) thoughts and ideas like democratising elections to the Youth Congress. But he has not weaved all of this into a grand announcement."
A minister confided that after reading Khurshid's comment, he had rushed to the dictionary to check the meaning of the word 'cameo'. He was relieved to find that it meant 'brief' and did not have a farcical or 'comedic' connotation.
The party was power-packed with a great line-up of Congress leaders who kept saying "no comments" after every question, but entertained listeners quite a bit with one-liners.
A suave minister wondered how Trinamool Congress chief Mamta Bannerjee could not support Hamid Ansari for the vice president's post after tying a rakhee to him.
Another minister, friendly and very informative, said cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was coming to New Delhi after his European holiday to vote for Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential poll.
In spite of the direct attack on Gandhi for not leading from the front and even revealing Congress's current dilemmas in public, Khurshid's party was a 'house full' event. There were Urdu poets, a Pakistani singer, publishing honcho Chikki Sarkar, senior journalist Swapan Dasgupta, few Intelligence Bureau officers, some retired civil servants and even industrialist Anil Ambani's Man Friday Tony Jesudasan.
Home Minister P Chidambaram and Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel arrived late and rushed out to attend the meeting of the United Progressive Alliance, where Sonia Gandhi declared Hamid Ansari's name for the post of vice president.
Chidambaram, who is from Chettinad, cut a langda mango horizontally and not vertically, as most Indians do. He took out the gutli (seed) and then made a cup of the lower half of the mango and enjoyed the juice, careful not to stain his milk-white kurta-mundu attire.
When asked if he was a foodie, he retorted, "Do I look like one?"
When asked about Time magazine's report on the PM being an underachiever, he said, "Nobody reads it in my constituency".
Chidambaram said the pessimism about current affairs in the country is more prevalent in the media, not on the ground.
One of the rare ministers who has a complete grip on constitutional matters, financial complexities and has his own brand of politics on security matters, Chidambaram is now waiting for the call from the party to head the finance ministry once again.
Before the Parliament convenes again on August 22, said a minister, Dr Singh will change some portfolios but not go in for a major reshuffle.
He said if Chidambaram takes over the finance ministry, then Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde may be shifted to the home ministry. When reporters asked him why Health Minister Gulam Nabi Azad was not a contender for the home minister's post, the Union minister didn't seem to like the idea at all!
When asked if there was pressure from Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav to make his brother Ram Gopal Yadav a presidential candidate, he said, "Every day we read news items and categorise them. Most news items fall under 'media creations'. Lots of stories are created and run by the media".
He added that the media was much more political now as compared to the 1970s and 1980s.
The minister was asked why the Congress was not giving Mamata Banerjee a facesaver so that her party can vote for a Bengali presidential candidate. After a long pause, he said, "You should ask our senior leader that question". He, of course, meant Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi.
When asked how the UPA will survive the embarrassment of Banerjee opposing the alliance's Presidential and vice presidential candidate, a senior minister replied in a lighter vein, "We believe in live and let live."
Then, he said, "We are like Hong Kong -- we have two countries within one political set- up."