The durbar, where the ruler could be seen interacting with visiting dignitaries, was replaced in India after the First World War by the tea party. The great Delhi durbar of 1911 was the last such state occasion. British monarchs and viceroys no longer dared to risk the public humiliation of a protest or boycott by nationalists, and a shared cup of tea offered something closer to parity between the participants―and the encounter could be photographed for propaganda purposes.
When Mahatma Gandhi met the viceroy, Lord Irwin, in 1931 at what is now called Rashtrapati Bhavan, he declined to have a cup of tea, referred to the Boston Tea Party and said he would prefer a glass of nimbu pani with a pinch of salt―a reference to the Salt March he had undertaken the previous year. Winston Churchill famously said that it was nauseating to see a “seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceroy’s palace, there to negotiate and parley on equal terms with the representative of the King Emperor.” But by then the political momentum was with the Indian National Congress, and pictures were released down the years of Gandhi and various viceroys holding discussions sitting in armchairs on a verandah, a tea table between them.
In 1946, a year before independence, an interim government was sworn into office in New Delhi. Although it included members of the Muslim League and other parties, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel controlled it in practice. In order to exert political power over the viceroy, Lord Wavell, they had the bright idea of acting as if he did not exist, and senior officials like the director of the Intelligence Bureau were prevented from briefing him. Wavell was furious, but constitutionally there was nothing he could do. Whenever he held a meeting of the interim government (called the viceroy’s council) its members would assemble in advance without him for a cup of tea, and decide policy. Wavell wrote forlornly that he was not invited to attend what he referred to as “the tea-party cabinets.”
His successor Lord Mountbatten was an innovative practitioner of social diplomacy: Nehru’s niece said she could not believe it when the new viceroy dropped in casually at her uncle’s house, and “sat in the garden eating strawberry ice cream.” When Gandhi came to meet Mountbatten for the first time, he proceeded in characteristic style to upset the planned preparations. “He stayed on for afternoon tea, which was arranged on the lawn,” wrote one of Mountbatten’s assistants, “and did not touch either the cakes or sandwiches, but chose to eat a bowl of goat’s curd which he had brought with him.” Surprisingly, he even persuaded the viceroy to taste a spoonful. A meeting with the head of the Muslim League was less successful: Mountbatten wrote that although Muhammad Ali Jinnah adopted “a gracious tea-party hostess manner,” he had been “haughty” and not inclined to engage in productive discussion.
After independence, the tea party went out of fashion: Prime Minister Nehru preferred to be photographed doing something active, like walking round a big dam or greeting schoolchildren. I have wondered whether Narendra Modi’s beautifully choreographed recent chai pe charcha on the lawns of Hyderabad House with the visiting US President Barack Obama was intended to give an echo of bygone days. Certainly the symbolic resonance of the event was very different, with Modi pouring the tea and channelling his childhood experience of serving tea at his father’s railway canteen in Vadnagar. But the composition of the meeting under the shamiana between these two self-made leaders of the world’s big democracies had a timeless quality to it, echoing both the past and the future. The tea party has an intimacy that serves the needs of negotiation and diplomacy well.
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