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Gifts received by delegates during foreign visits go straight to the toshakhana, the government’s treasure trove. (iStock)
Gifts received by delegates during foreign visits go straight to the toshakhana, the government’s treasure trove. (iStock)

Since 2014, Indian officials have received gifts worth 17.7 crore

A jewellery set worth 6.7 crore given to Sushma Swaraj in 2019 was the costliest gift received by an Indian official during the Modi years

A newly independent India under Jawaharlal Nehru was known to dispatch elephants as gifts to friendly nations. Mangoes made for another favourite in Nehru’s array of diplomatic offerings. Fast forward seven decades, carefully chosen gifts in the shrewd world of bilateral ties still make news: Narendra Modi began as prime minister by giving the Bhagavad Gita to global leaders. What do Indian leaders get in return?

An age-old foreign policy ritual, gifts range from humdrum to bizarre, and exotic to amusing. Count just the ones Indian officials got in the six years since Modi came to power in 2014, and we have around 2,800 gifts received by over 230 individuals across ministries and the bureaucracy. If sold in the market, they would fetch India at least 17.74 crore.

Gifts received by delegates during foreign visits go straight to the toshakhana, the government’s treasure trove. A Mint analysis of all gifts from the Modi years revealed items ranging from expensive jewellery and watches to artefacts and cheap gadgets. 61% of the gifts received between June 2014 and February 2020 were valued below 5,000, and less than 4% were worth 1 lakh or more, data logs from the toshakhana showed.

A silver diamond emerald jewellery set worth 6.7 crore given to Sushma Swaraj in 2019 when she was the minister of external affairs was the costliest gift of the period. The prime minister or the foreign minister usually get expensive gifts but in 2018, bureaucrats of their offices ruled the toshakhana, bagging diamond-studded watches worth crores. Thanks to these, the years 2018 and 2019 accounted for the most valuable additions to the toshakhana. Data prior to 2013 is not available on the ministry’s website.

Valued at 35 lakh, a box containing a necklace and earrings received by Modi himself in 2015 is among the most expensive of the lot. Cufflinks, crockery, mementos, cultural artefacts, paintings, photos, gadgets, sarees and kurtas, and even liquor have made it to India’s shores in the suitcases of returning ministers and bureaucrats. So have personalized gifts, such as an image of Modi on marble stone and a poem about him in Hindi.

Unsurprisingly, officials from the foreign ministry contribute the most to the toshakhana. Modi has over 650 gifts to his name since taking oath, followed by Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman. However, who gives the gifts is treated as sensitive information, and is outside the ambit of even the Right to Information Act .

The toshakhana additions since 2014 boast of some unusual gifts too, such as secret intelligence files, an 18th-century sword belonging to Nazafi dynasty of West Bengal, a framed page from Mahatma Gandhi’s diary along with his photographs, a cricket bat, a ball autographed by an international cricket team, and sacred water from Lake Mansarovar in a brass container. Not to forget, a model of the bullet train and a silver bullock cart.

The world of  diplomatic gifts
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The world of diplomatic gifts

After officials deposit their gifts to the toshakhana, their commercial value is assessed, in accordance with the Foreign Contribution (Acceptance or Retention of Gifts or Presentations) Rules, 2012. The recipient can take their gift home if they want to but they need to pay if the assessed value is above 5,000. Most gifts remain in the toshakhana and some are displayed in the National Museum.

Data logs show that only 592 of the 2,770 gifts—mostly mementos, personal gifts and cheaper cultural artefacts and paintings—since June 2014 went back home to the recipient. But most were not of commercial value or cost less than 5,000. Only 41 needed extra payments, fetching the toshakhana 3.52 lakh in total.

Former Union minister MJ Akbar and Vice President Hamid Ansari paid 45,000 each to take home a carpet and a painting respectively, the highest amount paid to the toshakhana for an individual item in recent years. Akbar also took other items home by paying the toshakhana: a jewellery box and gold cufflinks were among such items.

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