Indian Prime Minister fasts at White House luncheon

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Modi's plate was empty at the White House luncheon because he is in the middle of a nine-day religious fast dedicated to the god Durga.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office. Modi’s plate was empty at the White House luncheon because he is fasting. (Associated Press)

What do you serve a man who isn’t eating?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was served warm water and an empty plate as the guest of honor at a White House dinner Monday night and again at a State Department luncheon Tuesday.

It may seem odd to serve a dinner of crisped halibut with ginger carrot sauce to welcome a man who’s in the midst of a nine-day religious fast. People experienced in diplomatic protocol say such a circumstance is indeed rare — yet perfectly appropriate, so long as the visiting leader is pleased to sit and sip water while others dine.

Most would covet the invitation, said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush.

“It’s a level of respect and honor to host a foreign visitor in your home, in the White House,” McBride said. “Every single one of these leaders wants to be able to go back home and say the president of the United States hosted me in the White House.”

The prime minister of India observes an annual fast dedicated to the Hindu goddess Durga, consuming only water or lemon-water for nine days. Modi said he’s been doing that for more than 35 years. This time coincided with his first visit to Washington as prime minister. The State Department’s protocol office worked with the Indian Embassy to arrange suitable events and menus.

Attending dinners while fasting isn’t a problem, said Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Indian government, said Tuesday.

Modi’s only request is a glass of warm water, Akbaruddin said, and he insists that other guests should “please enjoy the feast that has been laid out by gracious hosts.”

Ann Stock, who served as President Bill Clinton’s social secretary, said even such small, working White House dinners for world leaders are meticulously planned weeks or months ahead of time to ensure the comfort of the guest and host. Dietary issues are just the start.

“You wouldn’t put together five flowers in a vase if five is a number that’s unlucky in that country,” Stock said.

What about guests chowing down near Modi? Some Americans might feel awkward.

“Whenever I’ve been in meetings with people who are fasting, I’ve refrained from food or drink,” said Jonah Blank, who served 12 years as South Asia policy director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But that’s not an etiquette requirement, he said.

Indeed, members of Modi’s delegation ate the meals.

“In India there are so many different communities with so many different dietary practices and restrictions, there is a lot more leeway for serving something that is going to be generally agreeable and accepting that some people will choose to refrain,” he said. “It doesn’t provoke surprise.”

Vice President Joe Biden got the issue out on the table before Tuesday’s luncheon of eggplant and sweet potato lasagna prepared by noted Indian-American chef Vikram Sunderam.

“The prime minister is fasting, and we keep taking him to lunches and dinners,” Biden joked. “And we Catholics would say that’s an occasion for sin.”


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