A gift, exchanged between two powerful heads of state, is usually not seen as an expectation of reciprocity. In most cases, it is a sign of relations and contributes to cohesion. This gift-study becomes interesting when gifter is Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the giftee include officials from America, one of the few countries that had once imposed travel restrictions to apparently rebuke Modi post the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Things changed after Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014 because India is the biggest growing market for Americans and U.S remains a dominant investment partner for India. So, what kind of gifts did Modi shower on U.S. officials and is he any different from former PM Manmohan Singh when it comes to giving?
Gandhi and African-American touch
Despite his massive popularity, Modi remains a controversial figure domestically and internationally. Modi was sworn in as the Prime Minister on 26 May 2014. US officials, who in 2005, denied Modi a visa did not have the benefit of foresight. In 2014, then U.S. President Barack Obama made a call to Narendra Modi to extend an invitation to visit Washington. So, in September of that year, the first African American President met Modi, the first Indian PM born after Independence. For Modi, it was a great opportunity. Knowing the importance of making the right impression on Barack Obama and First lady Michelle Obama, Modi clearly delivered a message.
Modi handed over digital recordings of titles: “Visit of Reverend Martin Luther King to India,” “Visit of Mrs. Coretta Scott King to Accept Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding to Reverend Martin Luther King (Posthumously) for the Year 1966 in January 1969,” and “The Spirit of Mahatma Gandhi.” These gifts were symbolic in nature because when Martin Luther King Jr. sought to end discrimination and prejudice against African Americans, he was apparently inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent teachings. Modi's gifts clearly indicate that he wanted to connect with Obama via the U.S. President's African American lineage.
Famous for his Hindu nationalist beliefs, Modi handed over a few books including 'Srimad Bhagavad Gita' and 'Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi'. Modi also gave a 10″ x 12″ framed photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. setting flowers at Mahatma Gandhi's Memorial at Rajghat in 1959. Giving a 'Gita' is not a surprise. However, Modi's gifts with a 'Gandhi-touch' are interesting. Gandhi, the tallest leader of the BJP's arch-rival Indian National Congress, remains one of the most admired leaders of the world. Modi must have taken into account Obama's deep admiration for Gandhi, famous for his non-violent resistance that typified the American civil rights movement.
It's not as if Modi was the first to give Obama gifts related to Gandhi. In 2010, Pratibha Patil, the then President of India, gave Obama Louis Fisher's book "The Life of Mahatma Gandhi" and a bronze-coloured bust of Mahatma Gandhi, among other things. Many Indian government functionaries over the years have taken pride in giving something related to Gandhi.
Coming back to 2014, Modi gave a golden fabric bag covered in floral white lace, closed by a triangular flap with a gold and diamond pendant at the point and a short tan kurta with golden thread trim and concealed buttons. They were surely to impress Mrs Obama. Modi's gifts received on September 29, 2014 also included a purple dress with small gems and multi-colored embroidery of peacocks, flowers, and vines, a blue mid-length dress with sleeves with red and golden embroidery and gems in stripe and leaf pattern, a cream-colored pashmina shawl with light orange and green stitching,and a cream colored pashmina shawl with light gray stitching.
All put together, Modi gave gifts worth $7,385 or about Rs 5 lakh to Obamas. US officials accept such gifts from foreign country heads, fearing that non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. government. These gifts, along with others, are at National Archives and Records Administration, which is tasked with preserving and documenting government and historical records. To Joseph R. Biden, Jr., then Vice President of the United States, Modi gave a sandalwood carved screen with paintings with an estimated value of $780.00.
Marian Anderson, peacocks & shawls
Obama and Modi met again in 2015. The new Indian prime minister on this occasion gave Obama a telegram facsimile from the U.S. to India's Constituent Assembly in 1946, and a reproduction of the cover page of a report on India's Constitutional Debates. But that's not all.
Modi chose to strike a chord with Obama by giving the U.S. President gifts that harped on the president's African-American lineage. Modi did this by giving Obama a 17″ x 13″ framed photograph of Marian Anderson's radio interview in India, and CD set, title: All India Radio Interview with Ms Marian Anderson, 18 November 1957, New Delhi, among others. Anderson, an African-American contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century, became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. Also among the gifts were shawls. Modi gave Obama a blue Shahmina shawl, a red Shahmina shawl, and a beige and cream coloured Shahmina shawl.
Put together, gifts worth $1231 were received by Obama in January-2015 from Modi. Like the others in 2014, all the gifts are with the National Archives and Records Administration.
By the time Modi and Obama met in 2016, Modi wasn't a new Indian PM. He had set off a raft of economic reforms and was getting used to his position. But the 'Bharatiyata' in Modi reflected in the gifts he chose on that occasion.
Modi gave Obama a 48″ × 41″ framed painting in acrylic, title: Peacock, worth $1,166. Peacocks have iridescent blue and green plumage; the Indian ones have mostly metallic blue and green plumage. Ashton B. Carter, Secretary of Defense of the United States, was also given a Peacock-themed decoupage box featuring two peacocks by Modi. The box lies in foreign gift locker 5D333 pending transfer to general services administration.
For Randy Bumgardner, Assistant Chief of Protocol and General Manager of Blair House, Modi chose to gift based on the 'Hindutva' theme. Bumgardner received a bronze statue of god Shiva from Modi, and had retained the same for official display. Shiva is one of the principal deities of Hinduism and is extremely popular as "destroyer of evil and the transformer" within the Trimurti, the Hindu trinity that includes Brahma and Vishnu.
MMS era: Boxes, 'Mughal' and purse
If Modi's gifts tried to harp on Hindutva and Obama's African-American lineage, gifts given to U.S. officials in the Dr Manmohan Singh era were very different.
There is not much record of gifts 'MMS' gave in 2014. If anything, the gifts to U.S. government functionaries in Dr Singh regime seem to have a more of a 'utility' tilt.
In 2013, James Plasman, political officer, received a Montblanc Timewalker GMT desk clock worth $930 from Krishna Mohan, Member of the Congress Party. In 2010, Hillary Clinton, the then secretary of state of the United States, received a boat-shaped silver purse from Dr Singh and a sterling silver footed bowl featuring traditional design from S M Krishna, then India's Minister of External Affairs.
Gifts linked to Mughals and Lahore were also given in MMS era. As per information, Dr Manmohan Singh in 2010 gave a miniature framed Mughal print to Evan Bayh, then US senator of the United States. Bayh deposited it with the Secretary of the Senate. In 2010, Clinton got an oil painting of Lahore Fort from Parkash Singh Badal, then Chief Minister of Punjab. In 2012, Hillary Clinton received a 12″ x 8″ picture in a wooden frame, title: “Jahangir Presents Prince Khurram with a Turban Ornament” by Kapil Sibal, the then Indian Minister of Human Resources Development.
S M Krishna seemed to have a penchant for gifting 'white marble boxes'. In 2010, Krishna gave a white marble 'box' with lid and inlaid floral pattern to White House staff member James Jones, and (again!) a white marble box with a colourful floral pattern to Biden. To Clinton, Krishna had given a necklace and bracelet in a wooden 'box'. Krishna in 2017 joined BJP. It will interesting to see what will be his gift of choice if he ever meets U.S. government officials again in official capacity!
MMS gave some interesting books too. In 2009, he gave to Barack Obama books including ‘‘Stories from the Panchatantra’’, ‘‘The Puffin Treasury of Modern Indian Stories’’, ‘‘A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India’’, and "History in the Making: The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy’’.
'Kashmir' was also a dominant gift theme. In 2010, Dr Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur gave a Kashmir loom blue cashmere stole with orange design, and a silver-coloured jewellery box with bird designs to U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. A year before, MMS had gifted to Michelle a beige pashmina shawl made by the Kashmir Loom Company. Gifts themed on birds were popular too. In 2009, Gursharan Kaur gave the First Lady two silver enamel sculptures of a King Fisher and a parrot. The same year, Biden received a statue of a jungle fowl rooster on a wooden base from Dr Singh.
The information about the gifts has been disclosed by the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of State, usually with a year's lag, submits a comprehensive listing of the statements which, as required by law, federal employees filed with their employing agencies during a calendar year concerning gifts received from foreign government sources. The disclosure contains the name and title of person accepting the gift on behalf of the U.S. Government, gift nature, date of acceptance on behalf of the U.S. Government, estimated gift value, current disposition or location of the gift, and identity of foreign donor and government etc. We have looked at gift information from 2011 to 2016. So, any gifts to reality TV star turned politician Donald Trump, who took charge as U.S. President only since January 20, 2017, have not been captured.
(The author is a journalist specializing in personal finance)