Hindi never felt this important before

On TV, Modi looked every bit at ease handling all of the adulation and attention with poise and panache.



By Abhishek Sengupta

Published: Sun 25 Aug 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 25 Aug 2019, 10:47 PM

There's something about India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Love him or loathe him, you can't just sideline him, especially on a week that saw him - not for the first time - raise quite a storm across three countries as part of a whirlwind inter-continental itinerary.
First, it was a series of bilateral meetings in France, including a special address at the G7 Summit in Biarritz. Then a day later on Saturday it was a meeting with His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, from whom he also received the Order of Zayed - UAE's highest civil decoration. And then it was a special address to a 20,000-strong crowd of Indian expats at capital Manama's Bahrain National Stadium in what was a historic first visit by an Indian prime minister to the island country besides receiving the King Hamad Order of the Renaissance, Bahrain's highest civilian honour.
On TV, Modi looked every bit at ease handling all of the adulation and attention with poise and panache. Sure there's charisma that even his most hardened detractors fail to spirit away but what intrigues me most is how nobody talks enough of how he's winning the game with perhaps the simplest, the crudest, and the most honest of all strategies - connecting with people in the language you are most comfortable in.
Let's admit it. We Indians love our English to bits and more often than not, a bit more than our comfort. We speak a smattering of languages but we cling on to the Queen's language in our everyday lives as if it were our very own last vestiges of a colonial past. No such baggage rules for India's frequently flying PM whose penchant for Hindi at the global stage is making the language great like never before.
Just to put it straight - Hindi isn't even India's national language. Like English, it is one of the official languages of the Government of India. Yet it never assumed such prominence in India's diplomatic interactions until Modi first arrived at the scene. Americas, Europe, Africa, Far East and of course this region - there hasn't been a place that Modi hasn't taken the Bollywood language to including even satellite television. You will know what I mean when you see Man v Wild with Bear Grylls, the hit survival series.
As a linguistic variety, Hindi is the fourth most-spoken first language in the world, after Mandarin, Spanish, and English. But going by the VIP treatment it's getting now, you would have to say Hindi's right up there. Growing up, I never saw Hindi - a language I studied in school - getting such a makeover.
India's 10th prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who ruled India for only 16 days in his first term before returning to power after a couple of years for a second term, entered folklore and history books when he became India's first external affairs minister to deliver a speech in Hindi at the UN General Assembly in 1977. Of course, you don't have to rummage much to find the black and white footage of his three-minute-20-second odd speech on a 'new India' on YouTube today but it is never the same you see!
I had also heard of the eloquence of India's former prime minister Indira Gandhi who spoke more than a dash of French too, besides of course Hindi but English was always her language of choice when it came to addressing the world, just like her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi.
Then there was P V Narasimha Rao. Known for his shrewd economic reforms, he was the first Indian prime minister from the southern part of India, and essentially a non-Hindi speaker. Yet he was a Sahitya Ratan in Hindi, spoke 17 languages fluently. Stories abound of how, after the 1992 Ayodhya demolition, he even pacified Muslim clerics in chaste Urdu and how he often quoted slokas (couplets) from the Bhagavad Gita. Yet even during his tenure, Hindi or Urdu, both mutually intelligible, never quite got the due promotion for a foreign trip.
Ditto for Manmohan Singh, the first Sikh in office (also Punjabi-speaking) and the first PM since Jawaharlal Nehru to be re-elected after completing a full five-year term. His opposition jibed at him for speaking too less and when the Oxbridge alumnus did speak, his no-nonsense English was always on the money. It was the Hindi that always took the hiding. Thanks to a certain Narendra Modi, India's lingua franca is out of the woods and is now in public limelight. It's about time, we spoke about it!
abhishek@khaleejtimes.com


More news from OPINION