Sweet and Sour Idlis of Mamallapuram

Sweet and Sour Idlis of Mamallapuram


Good food is an essential ingredient of all summits around the world. The menu cards of summit banquets are carefully preserved by the participants. The Mamallapuram informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping was no exception. The menu card itself was a collector’s item because it listed the choicest delicacies of Tamil Nadu, including idli and sambar, the inevitable duo which have become part of the national cuisine.

Many restaurants around the world perpetuate the memory of the visits of the dignitaries by adding something to their menu like the “Clinton Plate” or “Obama Nan” in a reference to Obama’s remark that India-US relations had become like a nan, while earlier it was as thin as a chapati. In certain places like Geneva, customers have to pay extra to sit on the chairs on which, Clinton, Hillary and Chelsea sat for lunch. In a hotel in Trissur in Kerala, the room in which Maradona stayed for a night has been preserved as he left it, including his uneaten food and used toiletries properly framed and hung on the walls.

An enterprising entrepreneur in Mamallapuram can make some money if he were to introduce sweet and sour idlis, which might go like hot cakes. The idlis will also be symbolic of the outcome of the summit itself, a blend of sweet and sour tastes on a kind of fluffy rice cake. What is sweeter than watching two adversaries taking in Pallava history and art for hours together all by themselves with even interpreters at arm’s length? The ruins and scenery lent an attractive backdrop for the great photo opportunity. But the hope being expressed that the summit will usher in a new era in India-China relations has no real basis and that is the sour part. The words like “candid conversations like friends and heart- to- heart discussions on bilateral matters” are not as sweet as they sound.

The number of “take-aways” closely associated with Chinese food, depends on the optimism of the analysts. The first among them is a new mechanism to deal with trade, investment and related issues, a typical solution offered by the Chinese to many problems, including the intractable border question. This was characterised by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale as “visible progress.” The Chinese have a long term approach to problems and they normally do not give any time frame. Interestingly, President Xi set a 100-year plan to cement relations between the two ancient civilisations. This is a comparatively short period in the Chinese mind, but not very relevant to a fast changing world. India cannot wait for a hundred years to resolve the number of issues that plague the relationship.

The repeated assertion that Kashmir was not raised by either side is not very good news either. This means that there is no prospect of any change in the Chinese policy of supporting Pakistan, particularly, the position that the issue should be resolved on the basis of the UN resolutions, which are anathema to India. Freezing the Chinese position will not lead to any forward movement in their attitude to the matter in the international fora.

The take away on the most important border question is a mere reiteration that the talks should be resumed. The MEA release eloquently talks of “efforts to arrive at a mutually agreed framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution” on the boundary question. No time frame is even contemplated. We also heard the Indian side mentioning the border issue as a remnant of colonial times, a key Chinese argument to change the traditional border.

Increasing defence cooperation through exchange of visits and discussions is a silver lining, but the present atmosphere of distrust and Chinese objection to military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh, no practical measures are likely to emerge. India becoming a close defence partner of the United States itself is a provocation for China.

Greater understanding of the concerns of each other on terrorism is definitely a take away, but the Chinese support to Pakistan in various areas is not likely to be diluted even when Pakistan uses terrorism as a state policy. In the Chinese eyes, terrorism is perpetrated by global terrorist groups and elements in China itself and not cross-border terrorism, which is our primary concern.

Joint efforts to combat climate change and growth of people to people contacts will benefit both the countries, but they are like motherhood, which can never be in question.

What will remain in the minds of the people of the two countries are the optics of the meeting and the warmth of the hospitality lavished on the Chinese President, who was “overwhelmed” by it. The very fact that he found it worthwhile to spend two days, listening to the exploits of the Pallavas and enjoying the sculptures of the cave temples and Bharatanatyam and Kathakali was heart warming. PM Modi and President Xi appeared engrossed in each other and the general public in both countries will believe that these gentlemen will not hurl nuclear weapons at each other. They have also agreed that “differences will be managed prudently and not be allowed to become disputes” in the future. It is also heartening that the assessment of both the leaders of the summit was positive, India being more positive than China. “The Wuhan Spirit had given new momentum and trust to our ties. A new era of cooperation will begin today through the Chennai Connect,” beamed PM Modi, while President echoed the sentiment in a more restrained manner.

The annual informal summit format has come to stay and the President has given the credit of suggesting it to the Prime Minister. The journey from the “Wuhan spirit” to the “Chennai Connect” was not very smooth as none of the Chinese actions during the period had the imprint of the Wuhan spirit, as their actions on Kashmir were clearly adversarial. The way to the next informal summit in a city in China will hopefully be more smooth, given the initiatives taken in Mamallapuram.

A report that on December 6, 1956, the then Prime Minister of China, Zhou Enlai, and Vice-Premier, Ho Lung, visited Mamallapuram with R.K. Nehru, India’s Ambassador to China has evoked some unpleasant memories of what happened afterwards.

Apparently, Zhou “expressed his admiration of the sculptures and asked a number of details about each piece of work.” At the entrance to the Shore Temple, he stood for “quite some time” and was “lost in contemplation of the scene”, according to a Hindu report at the time. The contemplation, hopefully, was of peace and not aggression, which followed in 1962.