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Minority report | The floral portfolio

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-05-2014 Shefalee Vasudev

The only flowers spotted during Narendra Modi’s swearing-in (as seen on the live telecast) as Prime Minister on Monday, 26 May, were in a modest glass bowl on the table from which the President chaired the function.

As Indian political ceremonies go, this was an exception—presumably thought through by the event manager. Somebody wisely chose to keep the flowers out, given that it was an outdoors event on a warm May evening in Delhi.

Otherwise, if you have been closely watching, the number and kind of lavish bouquets that dress up political events these days, the elaborateness of flower arrangements on political daises or stage backgrounds or the enormity of garlands that VIPs are greeted with would compare to the most flamboyant and expensive Indian weddings.

“Political flowers”, as a horticulturalist supplying to offices in Lutyen’s Delhi told me, are “five star flowers, madamji”. Five star flowers mean the most expensive varieties of tubular roses, orchids, anthuriums and lilies flown in from countries like China, Thailand, and even Holland. Fragrant local Rajnigandhas or the colour-intense carnations don’t make the cut. Marigolds, says this horticulturist, are not expensive but are seen as levellers. Like red roses, which are mandatory; without them, something is seen as missing in a floral decoration.

Fat and bulky rose or marigold garlands—five times heavier, if not more, than the politician being garlanded—have been a part of conspicuous political events. But what caught my notice last week, after the election results were announced, was the number of bouquets Modi was greeted with in Gandhinagar. One after the other, in what seemed like a never-ending queue, hundreds of flowers changed hands in a matter of minutes. Without glancing at them, like a busy groom would do at his own wedding, people handed the flowers to Modi, who handed them to an aide behind him, who, in turn, handed them to yet another assistant. It went on like a relay.

Two days later, when Modi addressed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) parliamentary party meeting in the central hall of the Indian Parliament, I noticed orchids lining his podium while large lilies decorated the background. Then, when he went to greet President Pranab Mukherjee, the two exchanged pretty bouquets in practised protocol. Both gentlemen handed them on without sparing the blooms a look. My curious question: where do all these flowers go after they have ushered in the smiles?

A couple of journalist friends reporting on politics for years agree that floral arrangements had indeed become more flamboyant over the years.

“Not just at functions but even inside offices in North Block and South Block or, for instance, at the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s office, I have seen the finest anthuriums sitting on tables,” said a senior writer. “Some contractor or vendor is making big money out there,” she added.

To use a pun, there is nothing under the table about this flower story.

All it evokes are benign questions on who chooses the flowers; are they bulk ordered or do different offices mandate different flowers? Most important, what happens to life-sized garlands when their deed is done? Are they sent to temples?

The assistant of a former parliamentarian told me that it is often the Speaker who decides which flowers enter the inside halls of the Parliament. “It is about protocol and diplomacy,” she added.

Flower orders are based on the position of the politician felicitated unless a specific request is made. For instance, when US President Barack Obama visited New Delhi in 2010, the lotus pond near Gate Number 1 of Rashtrapati Bhavan was especially prepped up. “Earlier, each member of Parliament (MP) would be sent a big bouquet on his/her birthday, but the practice was discontinued due to budget cuts,” she said.

Another anecdote reveals how a senior political leader once asked for his share of “five star bouquets for government servants” to be minimized.

While most flowers in government offices are kept for three days till they start wilting, as an insider reveals, no one seems to know what happens to them later. “There is no system for flower recycling,” admitted the MP’s assistant. As for bouquets at functions, they are given away to, well, whoever wants them. “Guests, families of politicians, wives or children of junior-level officials, clerks…”

A vendor at Ghazipur’s lovely wholesale flower market, listed as a prominent tourist destination of Delhi, gave me my answer. “It all depends on the destiny of a flower,” he said, adding that life was tough for a marigold but easier for an anthurium. “Marigolds and roses go everywhere, from weddings to cremation grounds, birth to death, but anthuriums have a sheltered life,” he said.

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