A handshake with history is every leader’s passion; embracing destiny is a prerogative. India’s frequent flyer prime minister, Narendra Modi, does the first with the second. Hate him or love him, but ignore him at your own peril. Libellous liberals hated Modi for over a decade as a ‘monster’ whose foot soldiers massacred minorities in his home state, Gujarat.
Now, when he gives both foes and friends a hug, he is ridiculed as a Public Display of Affection addict. Popular media has got its knickers in a twist, looking for patterns and motives in his hugs, handshakes and hand-in-hand strolls with visiting foreign dignitaries at home and overseas. In the last two weeks, he flew in and out of seven countries.
“How does he do it?” ask many.
“With élan,” is the answer.
A pinstripe suit, patterned with his name repeated vertically 1,000 times was the first sign of Modi’s sartorial savvy at any formal event. Once, he turned up at a formal banquet hosted by the President of India at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in a casual jacket and trousers, with a matching scarf thrown with careless elegance across his shoulder. Modi doesn’t always care about colonial conventions and diplomatic decorum. He believes in setting his own style. The Nehru jacket has been reinvented and rechristened as the Modi jacket, which has become the style statement of film stars, corporate leaders, political wannabes, civil servants and even Opposition leaders who have borrowed the Prime Minister’s
panache to colourfully stand out in a crowd.
However, for a leader who is the cynosure of global eyes, style is perceived as substance. Modi’s handshakes and embraces with world leaders are now under the media microscope—this column included. Without substantive leaks in the current administration, colour has replaced content. Journalists have become experts by filling primetime hours and column inches with comments on Modi’s body language, walking speed, dress colour and the position of his arms while hugging his counterparts in the countries he has visited. Indian and international newspapers carried a photo of Modi hugging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other global leaders who were in Hamburg for the G-20 and BRICS meeting last weekend.
Of course, world leaders are expected to dispense with customary pleasantries before getting down to business; however, the couples who carried the day at Hamburg were (1) German Chancellor Angela Merkel who fondly kissed Canada’s gay-friendly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and (2) Modi and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv whose personal chemistry was obvious. The media went gaga at the various photo-ops the latter tag team provided. After Modi’s Israel visit last week, Vow.com commented: “The two leaders laughed, hugged shared a helicopter tour of Israel, appreciated some art and history, and then hugged again. All this culminated in a slow walk on Dor beach in Haifa today.
The pair were there to discuss desalination (the process of turning seawater into potable water), but who knows what the two besties really talked about as they hiked up their pants and waded, smiling, into the Mediterranean Sea.”
But Modi baiters at home mocked him for theatrical diplomacy. The irreverent American media has ridiculed Modi’s desi expressions of warmth towards his famous friends. For example, he gave Obama a bear hug on his second US trip in September 2015, which fired up the Washington Post’s imagination. The story of the visit was carried with the caption “India’s Modi is a hugger of global proportions”. The writer added, “Some have wondered whether Modi’s stilted physicality is a conscious move. After all, while being accused of being an awkward hugger who loves fashion and taking selfies may perhaps be embarrassing, it’s certainly better than another criticism frequently leveled at him: that his Hindu nationalism is really anti-Muslim extremism in disguise.”
The confident Modi had become an eyesore for Capitol Hill’s Lobby Loving Liberals and morality mavens who had once succeeded in banning him from entering the United States in 2005. They spent time dissecting and desiccating his words, handshakes, clothes and food habits at his recent visit to Washington. But Modi is a trendsetter in innovative diplomacy. If Richard Nixon could end a 23-year standoff with China in 1972 using Ping-pong Diplomacy, why can’t Modi invite Chinese President to the Sabarmati riverside for a Gujarati Swing Session? The Indian Prime Minister knows myriad gestures to stoke a diplomatic romance.
He was the first Indian PM to invite all SAARC leaders to attend his swearing in ceremony in 2014. He was also the first PM who landed up at his first G20 meeting in Brisbane in 2014 wearing a casual jacket. Modi has defied convention by posing in front of the crossed flags of Britain and India with UK Prime Minister David Cameron in formals and him in a blue blazer and a pair of khakis. At a formal welcome ceremony in 2014, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was surprised by Modi with a big hug after he had turned away thinking a handshake was enough.
The Australian media went to town with the story. One newspaper commented: “As they shook hands, Modi, attired in a black bandhgala suit, embraced the Australian premier.” The Age, which had been posting comments and photos of the event live, said of the Abbott-Modi hug: “The stand out shake so far has been India’s Prime Minister Modi, who gave Abbott a hug. An ‘awww’ could be heard across the media centre.” The local press snidely noticed that Modi did not favour his counterparts Cameron and Stephen Harper with hugs.
Handshakes and arm locks have helped Modi achieve iconic global status as a tactile communicator. The Guardian wrapped up its Brisbane coverage with an article titled ‘Narendra Modi: from international pariah to the G20’s political rock star’—observing that the Indian prime minister “is one of the most popular figures at this G20. A leader others want to see, and be seen with”.
The sheer physicality of Modi’s power hugs and handshakes has stunned many. Perhaps, he may go overboard at times in his enthusiasm, but his generosity of spirit is reflected in the intimacy of his gestures as an effective communicative tool even when it leaves an imprint literally. When Prince William visited India with Princess Kate in April 2016, Mail Online published a set of pictures of a Modi-William handshake with the caption: “They say a firm handshake is a sign of strong leadership”. The red marks Modi’s grip left on William’s right hand left the royal guest in no doubt that Narendra Modi represented the “power of 1.25 billion people.”
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla