When I gatecrashed the media scrum at the India-Pakistan Summit 2001: Senjam Raj Sekhar recalls an unusual PR success

Senjam Raj Sekhar on how soup became a story during a historic summit

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Agra Summit. Media seems to have given this anniversary a complete pass. In the history of India-Pakistan relationship, there have been only two summits. The most famous one is the Shimla summit in 1972 between Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Bhutto. The second one was in 2001 held in Agra between Vajpayee and Musharraf.

The setting was historic. The Kargil war ended in 1999 and a statesman like Vajpayee was determined to leave his mark in modern Indian history. Musharraf on the other side of the border also looked eager to settle old disputes. It was mutually agreed that the historic city of Agra will be the venue for the summit.

Little did I realise when I was reading about the summit in the newspapers that I will play a small part in it. I was working in Corporate Voice Shandwick (now called Weber Shandwick) and Oberoi Hotels was my client. During that time, Biki Oberoi, the perfectionist MD of the group, had painstakingly built what was called the Vilas properties. The first of these ultra luxury resorts came up in Jaipur (Rajvilas) and Agra (Amarvilas). The resorts had just launched and it was our responsibility to ensure that there was buzz and excitement about the properties.

I got called for an urgent meeting where it was revealed that Musharraf was going to stay at Amarvilas during the summit. This was a PR person’s dream. The hotel had just launched. In fact, a few months back, I had stayed at the hotel and enjoyed the view of the Taj from every window of my room including the bathroom!

I immediately rushed to Agra. Amarvilas was out of bounds and I set up an office at the business centre of Trident, Agra, another Oberoi property. The first day was easy enough. Once the news broke that Musharraf was going to stay at Amarvilas, I just had to send a background note on the resort. The next day’s newspapers covered all the aspects of the resort in the front pages. Of course, the view of Begum Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum from every room of the Amarvilas was the key highlight.

I realised that if Amarvilas had to make a splash again it had to be on the first day of the Summit on 15th July, before any official briefing by the two countries. I called the GM of the hotel to get the inside scoop. He gave me all the details but what caught my attention was that Begum Musharraf wanted recipes of Mulligatawny soup, Nalli Ghost and Murg Ke Parchey.

The last time I heard of Mulligatawny soup was during my Delhi college quizzing days. This was a soup that originated during the British Raj and was a corruption of Tamil ‘Milagu Thanni’ which meant pepper water. While this soup did not catch people’s imagination in India after independence, it spread to Australia and England. Exotic enough to pique people’s interest.

I quickly made a small note and took around 100 print-outs from the Trident business centre.When I stepped out of the hotel, Vajpayee and Musharraf were still locked in their meeting.I reached Mughal Sheraton, Agra which served as the base camp for the media. Hundreds of media personnel Indian as well as global had descended there. Remember, this was 2001. Google was an infant and social media had not even taken birth.

There was a lull in the atmosphere at the Sheraton. There were lazy conversations between journalists. Few were giving piece-to-cameras talking about how they were still waiting for some news to emerge.

I started distributing the note. Quickly, a melee of journalists surrounded me. Some even snatched the notes and began running towards their TV cameras and laptops.

I still had around 10-15 printouts left and began searching for people who did not get the note. One journalist who I have seen multiple times on TV and was not part of the melee, came towards me. As I handed the note, the journalist furiously dialed a number on the phone and barked “I have an exclusive!”

The first day's talk was inconclusive. Nothing major came out of it. Mulligatawny soup and Begum Sahiba’s culinary preferences became a major talking point everywhere - India, Pakistan and the rest of the world.

I had done my job.

The Agra Summit ended in a stalemate. A few months later in December 2001, the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament took place. India responded with a major show of strength mounting 'Operation Parakram'.

There has been no summit ever since between India and Pakistan. And never did mulligatawny soup ever become such a major news item or for that matter Amar Vilas.

Senjam Raj Sekhar is the head of Global Communications at Mobile Premier League, an esports and gaming platform with operations in India, United States and Indonesia. 

If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our weekly event and subscriber alerts.