When Narendra Modi started out as the Prime Minister, he was lauded and applauded for showing pride in his mother tongue – he chose Hindi as a medium for diplomatic parleys and major speeches.
Media widely reported that after Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Modi was probably the second leader who had addressed the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi.
The saffron brigade was in raptures at the endorsement of their line of thought, the urban middle class quietly welcoming his confidence of expressing himself in the language of his ease.
After all, Modi was a man comfortable in his skin, never shy of his modest background or ever timid to claim the destiny he had crafted for himself with his sheer hard work, sharp mind and ruthless brand of politics.
Modi was a man, who had in fact turned his weakness into his strength, and when mocked by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar for being a ‘chaiwala’, he had set off the concept of ‘chai pe charcha’ and distributed steaming cups of tea at his well attended rallies.
This was a smart marketing gimmick, though in heart of hearts he is said to have been upset when ally Uddhav Thackeray alluded to his ‘chaiwala’ background, possibly showing that while he can take the spears from the opposition, he doesn’t really want to be poked at for his humble roots.
At one level when Modi chose Hindi as the language for global diplomacy, one thought he was once again translating his position of weakness into strength. While Modi understands English perfectly, his diction, pronunciation and even fluency could have been better. He has studied in a Hindi medium school with limited training in English and pursued higher studies only much later when he joined the RSS and came under the influence of Eknath Ranade.
Initially Modi might have felt that that his speaking in Hindi abroad would present the face of a new India, where the underdog can dream of becoming the Prime Minister.
If the French, the Chinese and the Russians have no qualms about it, why have Indians always been shy of flaunting their mother tongue? Modi may have thought that by using English as language of communication abroad, we had only been re-emphasising the class divide that exists in India, with English being the choice of the well-heeled.
Besides, politicians and leaders tread a very thin line when they speak and negotiate with counterparts in foreign lands, and would not like to slip on even a word, when nuances and subtleties can make or break diplomatic relations.
The surprise came in Modi’s latest jaunt abroad. From the start, Modi started interspersing his conversations with a sprinkling of English. Was Modi trying to go past his disadvantageous educational inheritance? Had his PMO squad or Foreign Ministry’s mandarins ‘guiding’ or ‘misguiding’ him into trying a hand at English?
My conjecture was confirmed as Modi chose to address the Australian Parliament in English. What could have prompted the Prime Minister into such a gamble even if he managed to insert the ‘shirt-fronted’ joke?
His address in the Fiji Parliament was even less impactful. Modi was looking at his papers constantly, and was making tiny but perceptible pauses as he appeared to be figuring out some words that were written. The audience looked uninspired and there were times one needed to actually exert to understand what he was saying.
The Indian Prime Minister’s body language slackens when he speaks in English, and he looks a far cry from being the vintage Modi one is used to seeing – bold and unapologetic.
At least in the short term, Modi cannot be as fluent or impressive in English as he is in Hindi. And he probably never will be extempore – the trait of not needing a teleprompter impresses worldwide. It is a mark of a natural leader.
My feeling is that he has been beguiled into believing that the use of English will help him build and consolidate his position as a global leader, as he would be understood more widely.
One would beg to differ considering that Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin rarely or never use English.
My recommendation would be for Modi to continue to use Hindi. It is possible that global audiences will be appreciative of his attempts at speaking English, though it’s not his first language. It is equally possible that there would be dozens of listeners who would be smirking, but keeping a straight face out of politeness.
Modi is a self made man and he does not need English to establish himself on the world podium, which my hunch tells me is his ultimate dream.
If he really wants to go with the Queen’s language, it would be prudent for him to try the option of getting consultants on board, as is the common practice these days globally. From Barack Obama to Kate Middleton and Prince William (who could not have a more privileged background), everyone hires a battery of experts to hone their skills in public speaking and body language.
It is possible that I am entirely mistaken on the communication choices that Modi is making. But then, it hardly hurts to give a bit of free but well-meant advice.