Modi added a touch of the authentic by deliberately speaking in Hindi, the language he prefers to communicate in.
The ability to speak to the audience is among the main attributes of an effective communicator, especially those in public life. In this made-in-media age, this is a daunting challenge. A public speaker must keep in mind that his audience is no longer restricted to those present at the venue. Thanks to live
TV, YouTube and Periscope, a speech often reaches varied audiences. An important speech must, therefore, cater to not merely the visible audience but an unknown world beyond.
These imponderables must have weighed in the mind of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he spoke at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Nominally, the audience comprised investors and global notables who influence the financial and political worlds. The speech, therefore, had to appeal to them. However, given that an Indian PM was speaking at Davos after a gap of some 21 years, and considering that India’s global stature had risen immeasurably in the intervening period, the speech had a significance that extended far beyond the convivial surroundings of Davos. In effect, Modi was speaking to a much larger audience. His hardsell of the India story was lavishly covered in the international media, particularly in countries that either have strong India links or view India as a rising global power.
At the same time, there was a domestic dimension. For many Indians, the importance accorded to Modi at Davos was a source of immense pride and recognition of India’s hard-earned place on the world’s high table. His speech was closely monitored within India. The invocation of India’s spiritual heritage and his critique of over-consumption may have had a niche global audience but
these themes were primarily aimed at Indians (not least within his ideological ecosystem) who are sceptical of India’s rush to be integrated into the choppy waters of global capitalism.
Modi added a touch of the authentic by deliberately speaking in Hindi, the language he prefers to communicate in. Judging from the social media responses, Indians — both in the audience and outside — were elated. Modi had successfully signalled that embracing globalization can work simultaneously with remaining
It is difficult to fathom how this injection of Indianness was viewed in a world where local distinctiveness is often viewed as clutter and where global indices are often viewed in terms of the local price of a Big Mac (not sold in India’s McDonald’s outlets) that tastes the same, whether in Marseilles or Melbourne. Journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in The Daily Telegraph (London), was sceptical, almost dismissive: “It is becoming almost a habit for Asian leaders to defend the world order in the Alpine sanctum sanctorum of Western liberal ideology. Yet Mr Modi is at heart a nationalist” not terribly
dissimilar from China’s Xi Jinping who “runs a highly protectionist and mercantilist fortress.” As he saw it, “Delegates in Davos clapped politely after Mr Modi’s speech in Hindi. Rhetoric only goes so far.”
In a West-dominated intellectual establishment where Trump-scepticism and Brexit-scepticism dominate the agenda, the nationalist underpinnings of Modi’s speech may have proved mildly unsettling. At the winter session of Parliament, Congress MP and former UN functionary Shashi Tharoor crossed swords with Sushma Swaraj over the role of Hindi as a medium of global communication. Tharoor had argued that Hindi should stick to India. By that logic, any pitch for India would have been more effective had it been delivered in English, preferably in
received pronunciation and in a non-desi framework.
Undeniably, there are many Indians who feel a sense of extra pride when their leaders can communicate in idiomatic English with the lucidity of a Jawaharlal Nehru. To be ‘one of us’ — as a former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, said of Nehru — remains a cherished sectional aspiration. Mercifully, after 70
years of self-rule, such people are a minusculity — although the temptation to wear business suits they can’t carry remains widespread. While there may be sympathy for Pranab Mukherjee’s lament that to aspire for the top political job necessitates proficiency in Hindi — which, alas, he wasn’t — this is a domestic
issue. Globally, the status of a rising power isn’t measured by the cultural cringe of its elite. Communicating in an Indian language (with simultaneous translation) does not diminish the country. It signals self-confidence.
Globalisation is not a pre-sold idea in India. It faces enormous resistance, often born of the smug belief that we are a self-sufficient civilisation. To sell India’s economic appeal overseas is necessary, but it must also be communicated with self-pride within India. In Davos, Modi did both.