A history of political iftar parties

The tradition of political iftar parties began with the advent of Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister

The crescent moon has been sighted over Delhi and Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari has proclaimed the advent of Ramzan. It is meant to be a month of piety and generosity, but we will turn it once again into a season of silly vulgarity. The monsoons have failed. Drought and death stalks vast tracts of the country. The economy is still deep in the trench. But neither the seriousness of the looming crises, nor the predicament of our polity, nor the spirit of Ramzan will impress our leaders.

And so they will be busy with drawing up guest lists, planning menus, hogging more than just headlines and showing us how little they care about the critical issues that confront the nation. Even our newspapers will be swept up by this excitement suggesting that successive Press Commission recommendations have still somehow not decreased their gluttony? In the next few days, the main point of excitement for our newspapers will be the triviality of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s guest list or Hamid Ansari’s iftar spread. One thing I can say about Narendra Modi. I don’t think he will go through the hypocrisy of hosting an iftar party. That at this moment seems the only saving grace.

It is not that these parties are without some significance. One thing for sure, it seems to make our leaders more considerate towards each other. Once at Somnath Chatterjee’s iftar dinner, Mulayam Singh Yadav helpfully advised Sonia Gandhi to go easy on the hilsa because of the bones that might stick in her craw. She, in turn, it seems, was at her eloquent best when she readily riposted: “Ab main khanton se jujhne ko seekh gayi!”

Mrs Gandhi’s iftar parties were once the party to be invited to. Not just for the close-up one can get of her delightful dimples, but for the delicious fare of kebabs and biryani that set her apart in a class by herself. A friend who went to her party one year still speaks of the delicious kakori and tunde kebabs served. Tunde kebabs are not called that because they came from a place called that, like Kakori. It gets its name because the man who made them had one arm — hence tunda. My friend, the journalist Zafar Agha, tells me that the name came about when journalists who sent for kebabs to go with their hooch at Lucknow’s press club would holler to the waiter: “wo tunde ke yahan se le aana!” And so these kebabs became immortal.

The tradition of political iftar parties began with the advent of Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister. Nehru used to host one each year at the Congress Party office, which in those early days was at 7 Jantar Mantar Road. It used to be a small gathering of mostly Muslim colleagues, politicos and journalists. The practice was stopped when Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded him. In 1974, it was revived by H.N. Bahuguna in Lucknow who, as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, began assiduously courting the Muslim vote bank.

Then like now, since the state cannot seem to do very much to rid the Muslim masses of their wretchedness, iftar parties became the means to establish one’s secular bona fides. He was the first Hindu maulana. Mr Yadav only followed after L.K. Advani sallied forth in his first dieselised rath. Bahuguna’s success apparently rattled Indira Gandhi enough to begin her own in Delhi.

In 1977, after the Janata victory, Chandra Shekhar who had a true flair for event management began to put 7 Jantar Mantar to good use with iftar parties. Morarji Desai, however, made it a point not to attend. As can be expected, Manmohan Singh’s parties were famous for a famous Amritsari delight — kesar lassi and sweet Amritsari amriti. Atal Behari Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, did his raj dharma by hosting iftar parties replete with Muslims straight out of the casting office.

Muslims with costumes and caps last seen in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari would crowd around the tables laden with delicious food from Ashoka Hotel and unwashed hands, Hindu and Muslim, would dig into the dishes in a display of brotherhood in gluttony.

The month of Ramzan was ordained in the second year of the hijra after the last of the revelations were made to Prophet Muhammad. This was also the month in which the victorious battle at Badr had taken place. By now the Prophet felt confident to completely break with the Jews. The Jewish fast of ashura on the day of kippur was no longer obligatory. Muslims now began to distinguish themselves in all things from the people of Israel.

No more would his followers turn towards Jerusalem for prayer. Ramzan was to be a month of piety, charity and abstinence. After a full day of abstinence the faithful broke their fast with some dates, some salt and water. It seems only keeping with the mores of the times that abstinence and piety were to be replaced by indulgence and extravagance. So the competition between our netas is not any more about what they can do for us, or what they can get us to do for our country, but about how large a spread can they lay out on the table!

Having been to a few of these iftar parties I can say with the benefit of experience that the food is usually cold and the faithful who seem to be the same lot trucked from party to party, no pun intended, take precedence over the rest of us, when at last the food section is opened for attack. The iftar party is probably the only time in the BJP office that Muslims take precedence over the Brahmins.
But what about Ramzan, the season of piety and generosity of spirit?

The writer held senior positions in government and industry, and is a policy analyst studying economic and security issues

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