Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address had been unanimously described as a rare heart-to-heart communication between a national leader and the people who comprise the nation. But it will not be off the mark to acknowledge that his speech would have been closely scrutinised by powerful global leaders like US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who are likely to interface with Modi in the weeks ahead.
Days before this historic address, the first to be made from the Red Fort by a leader born after India’s Independence, a record demand for entry passes from over 150 foreign diplomatic missions was witnessed. Such phenomenal enthusiasm among the members of global diplomatic community based in Delhi was illustrative of the fact that the world at large was keen to witness the Modi phenomenon at work to be able to gauge his vision of India as well as his perspective on related global dynamics.
Modi’s oratorical grandeur, amid unprecedentedly relaxed security paraphernalia for ensuring a direct interface with a record audience ever, sets him apart from some other Prime Ministers in the past. His decision to negotiate in Hindi with world leaders rather than English that had been preferred medium of exchange chosen by many of his predecessors, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also demonstrates that he intends to do things differently in his diplomatic communication with the world leaders. He wants to send a clear massage that India is not only the world’s largest democracy but a live and vibrant ancient civilisation too.
Modi has already visited Nepal and Bhutan. He is slated to travel to Japan and the US in September, and then host the presidents of China and Russia for summit-level talks before the end of the year.
This is a tactical move that should strike a chord with the leaders of China and Japan with whom Modi is scheduled to interact soon. Both these nations claim to represent ancient civilisation and are proud of their cultural tradition despite having opened up to the Western lifestyle. As for the US and European countries, this will indicate that Indian diplomacy has finally come out of the vestiges of the colonial era.
The use of Hindi vernacular in Modi’s interaction with Xi Jinping is bound to heighten the level of communication between the two Asian giants at another level. After Russia, China possesses the largest cumulus of Hindi speakers in the world, but Hindi experts by and large remain unemployed whenever Indo-China summit meets are held or other high level contacts are exercised as all exchange transactions at multi-levels are held through English interpreters. It is said that in the late 1950s and early 60s, when frenetic confabulations between then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai were held alternately in Beijing and Delhi to normalise relations between the two countries, Zhou Enlai had once mentioned to Nehru in jovial jest that if India stopped using a foreign language to defend its borders, perhaps a consensus solution could emerge, to which a quick-witted Nehru responded, “A language of pure love between the two countries would even be better.”
However tangential such dialogues be to the discourse of modern operational diplomacy, the fact is that the medium of inter-diplomatic communications does make a cardinal difference. And this shall be Modi’s end-goal while he visits Tokyo. Both sides have high expectations from his visit in early September. The nature of personal chemistry that could emerge between Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Modi is certain to take Indo-Japanese synergy to new heights notwithstanding the fact that both leaders confront serious challenges of delivery amid rising levels of expectations from people in their respective domestic constituencies.
Modi is right in deciding to shift to Hindi in his communications with world leaders because though he can speak in English, choosing an Indian language will allow him to better use idiom and nuances as well as calibrate the flow of the conversation. Shinzo Abe speaks English fluently but only speaks in Japanese in official diplomatic engagements. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is also comfortable in English but prefers to speak in Chinese with world leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks German fluently, but talks in Russian to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during bilateral talks.
India’s Anglophobic liberals may see shades of Hindi chauvinism in Modi’s preference for Hindi against English as the language of diplomatic discourse. But the move is bound to find tremendous support at home and among Indians abroad as an emphatic assertion of India’s independent cultural identity. And it is bound to make world leaders with whom he will interact more attentive to India’s sensitivities.
Menon is a former additional secy,Cabinet Secretariat