September 29th, 2014
06:00 AM ET

Why India's leader won't eat with Obama

By Moni Basu, CNN

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(CNN) - Fillet of sole with tyrolienne sauce. Supreme of pheasant Veronique. Chocolate lotus blossoms. These are culinary creations that were served in the past to Indian prime ministers visiting the White House.

But on Monday, when India’s newest leader meets with President Barack Obama, his plate will be empty.

That’s because Narendra Modi will be in the middle of a strict fast for Navratri, Sanskrit for nine nights. It's a Hindu festival devoted to the manifestations of the goddess Shakti, a symbol of purity and power.

Navratri’s timing depends on the lunar calendar but usually is observed once in March-April to usher in summer and again in September-October, before winter. Modi intends to survive solely on “nimbu pani” or water with lemon for nine days.

This year, Navratri began September 25, the day Modi boarded an Air India jet bound for New York.

As though it were not enough that a fast might lead to fatigue for a 64-year-old man embarking on a whirlwind 100-hour visit to the United States. Modi’s trip is jam-packed with over 50 events, including a speech at the United Nations and a working dinner with Obama.

There’s an awkwardness factor here, too. How will U.S. officials deal with Modi’s refraining from food? Eat in front of him?

India’s External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said it’s normal for high-level guests to indicate dietary preferences to their high-level hosts. He said the White House has been alerted to Modi’s fast.

In Washington, Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the White House is aware of Modi’s fast and does not anticipate it becoming an issue in any way.

But it did create a stir on social media.

On a Facebook page dedicated to Modi’s appearance before a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, Sudha Dixit wrote: “Narendrabhai shouldn't fast while traveling. One, others having dinner with him will be uncomfortable and two, he needs as much energy as he gets.”

On Twitter, some thought the issue was overblown.

The reality is that Modi has been fasting for Navratri twice a year for almost 40 years. He wrote about it in a 2012 blog post.

“Many of you will be fasting through these 9 days…. This fast is never to seek anything but an act of self-purification. Fasts such as this have been a source of strength, power and inspiration for me over the last many years.”

Writer Nilanjan Mukhapadhyay asked Modi about his religion in the course of researching a biography. It was a topic of interest because Modi, a staunch Hindu nationalist and former chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, has been controversial on this score.

“I was curious about Modi’s religious practice because of the strong element of the use of religion as a political tool in the course of his political career,” Mukhapadhyay wrote in his book. He asked Modi how religious he was.

“One is being religious and other is being spiritual,” Modi replied. “We often mix up these in India. In a way I am not religious but I am definitely spiritual.”

Modi’s critics blame him for stoking sectarian tensions in India and questioned whether he was the right man to lead such a diverse and secular nation. The skepticism stemmed from 2002 riots in Gujarat in which 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, were killed. Modi was accused of doing little to stop the carnage although a Supreme Court investigation cleared his name.

The riots were a prickly problem for the United States and the State Department denied Modi a visa in 2005.

That’s the bigger issue for Ahsan Khan, president of the Indian American Muslim Council, which describes itself as being dedicated to safeguarding tolerance and plurality in India.

“Mr. Modi has triumphantly arrived on U.S. shores, through exemptions normally accorded to heads of state,” Khan said. “The euphoria surrounding his visit has obfuscated the harsh realities of what Mr. Modi’s ascent to power might portend for India and its secular polity.”

Khan said Modi’s first 100 days in office has seen deeper divisions among Hindus and Muslims in India.

“Admittedly, Mr. Modi started his U.S. trip on the right note, with a statement during a CNN interview to Fareed Zakaria, affirming that India’s Muslims would ‘live and die for India,’” Khan said.

“While Muslim leaders welcomed this rare affirmation of their patriotism, it is perhaps worth reminding Mr. Modi that India’s Muslims would live and die only for a secular India, far removed from the semi-theocratic, majoritarian state that is espoused by many in his own ideological ilk,” he said.

The prime minister has said he lives only on water for nine days for internal purification. He told Mukhapadhyay that it has never caused him any health problems.

Mukhapadhyay likened Modi’s fast to, say, a Muslim leader observing Ramadan, though they are allowed to eat after sundown. Modi’s fast is more rigorous.

But Modi is doing what any strictly observant Hindu might do. It’s just that Americans will be seeing it very publicly.

- Moni Basu

Filed under: Asia • Faith • Food • Hinduism • India

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