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Home > Business > Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

Of Modi, ties and missing the Mahatma

Josy Joseph in New Delhi | January 11, 2003 20:09 IST

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations were a study in contrast. They ranged from maladministration to impressive performances, from disappointment to merriment, and from food for thought to thought for food,

On Saturday morning, you could see Haryana officials busy in a room selling the north Indian state as an attractive investment destination, replete with modern infrastructure and total government support, to the impressive pravasi gathering.

A floor above, Kerala officials were briefing pravasi Malayalis about the improvements in infrastructure, tourism and holistic medicinal centres in the southern state.

A few metres away, in another room, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's overseas supporters were shouting down a pravasi dancer who questioned the safety of minorities in Gujarat.

Modi, the hero

Yet, the day belonged to Modi, whose inability to properly read out (he speaks better extempore) a written English speech hardly bothered his sophisticated overseas fans who kept cheering him on.

Just as his speech ended, a Paris-based Odissi dancer -- Devismita Pattani -- questioned him on the security of minorities in Gujarat. Modi chose not to respond. Then, as soon as the meeting dispersed for coffee, Modi supporters, mostly from the United Kingdom and the United States, trooped around Pattani, questioning the petite dancer.

There was one particular Gujarati from the UK, who asked her if a Catholic would ever be the King or Queen of Britain. Said yet another Gujarati from the US, "Minorities all over the world have to face problems."

One from Fiji spoke about how the Indian community is at the receiving end in that small nation.

There were a few hardcore Modi fans who even advised reporters against talking to Indian pravasis from France, who were concerned about the bad image generated by riots last year.

After a coffee break, the dancer repeated her question. This time Modi replied. "There is no difference between your thinking and others' thinking. Thank you for your suggestion," he said cryptically.

The question had managed to pierce his seemingly unworried exterior.

Unlike the Modi of a few weeks ago when he was the eloquent advocate of new generation Hindutva before the Gujarat elections, this was a new man on the dais.

He professed information technology, biotechnology, calling for an international Yoga university, etc, in his state. He did not refer to Godhra or the riots that followed.

However, the cheering majority thrilled Modi. He also announced his party's victory on Saturday in the by-elections to Surat (West) to the accompaniment of terrific applause.

Most of the Gujaratis who spoke during the interactive session were showered praise on Modi. An American Gujarati used compared Modi to Sardar Vallabhai Patel, while another said the Gujarat chief minister had placed India back on the pedestal where it belonged.

A delegate from Portugal claimed Modi has made Gujarat the safest state in India.

Binding ties

As the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations were about to wind up following the luncheon session, Minister of State for External Affairs Digvijay Singh unveiled a special tie to commemorate the festival.

The release of the tie, which was being sold for the past two days, was at the hall where lunch was also being served.

The function, if it could be called so, was as chaotic as the festival itself. L M Singhvi, MP, was heard shouting over the microphone for attention. But, it was thought for food that the delegates were enamoured of.

Judging India

In contrast to the cheers and hubbub that marked the Modi session, the crowd was sober and silent as Justice A M Ebrahim, a retired Supreme Court judge from Zimbabwe, addressed the Gujarati crowd.

He said India was the 'greatest democracy,' and had a secular Constitution and 'a Supreme Court that is fearless in maintaining human rights.' "We must look at each other as Indians, and not worry about what religion any one of practices," he said.

Justice Ebrahim called on the leaders to treat everyone equally. "We will look at ourselves as India, to support and uphold values as Indians," Justice Ebrahim said.

Missing the Mahatma

It was left to a delegate from Fiji to point out the obvious. This morning, he asked: "You say that January 9 was selected for the inauguration of the festival to mark the return of Mahatma Gandhi to India from South Africa. But, I do not see a single symbol of Gandhiji anywhere here!"

Tickling palates

Each day's food had a theme. The cuisine had the flavour of various states. On Friday, it was from Gujarat and Kashmir.

Delicacies from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar tickled palates on Thursday. And on Saturday, the organisers had 'Ghar Ka Khana' and 'Street Food' for lunch.

Strangely, the later was tastier.

The magnificent Tri-Service band

The Tri-Service mass band performance in the evening at the historic Vijay Chowk certainly compensated for all the disappointment that the function seemed to have generated amongst certain sections of NRIs.

Vijay Chowk is the confluence of roads running from Raisina Road, where Rashtrapati Bhawan is situated, India Gate and Parliament. It was there that the bands of the armed services staged a mass performance for the second time in history for an occasion other than Republic Day celebrations.

It was in 1983 that the Tri-Service band performed at that spot for the heads of states from several dozen Non-Aligned Movement nations during the NAM Summit.

The best of the bands from all the three services stage a show at Vijay Chowk for the traditional Beating Retreat, only on January 29. The Retreat is a show unmatched the world over. Breathtaking music by colourfully dressed military men, who are at once martial and languid in their body language and stunning in their range of music.

The mellifluous music escorts out the sun, with tunes that mesmerize the crowds year after year on January 29, as the entire complex comprising Rashtrapati Bhawan, North Block, South Block and Parliament light up in the darkness.

One hopes other departments too would rise like the defence forces to realize the potential of the conclave of 1,500 rich, influential, powerful members of Indian Diaspora from around the world.

And one prays that the next pravasi meeting is not reduced only to a 'talk shop' gathering for a few famous names and some Indian ministers.

Parting shot

A senior government official, when asked about the absence of pravasis from South Asia, especially poor countries of SAARC region, said: "They would certainly come, but it is doubtful if they would leave at all."

No surprise that in this era of terrorism and suspicion, throwing out illegally staying Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is high on the agenda of the government.

Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

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