Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi is much more fluent in English than most people assume. He rarely speaks the language in public or in private meetings, and seems to be encouraging his cabinet to make Hindi the language of ministerial discourse.
“He’s not comfortable in English unless he is making a prepared speech”, his supporters often say.
Yet 12 years ago, three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, he was adlibbing confidently and powerfully in English for a recording of what was then Star TV’s Big Fight television program during a sensitive and often-heated debate on the question “is Islam the now driving force of terrorism”.
He was also not averse to being shouted at, even by a foreign journalist, as I discovered asking questions alongside Rajdeep Sardesai, the anchor (now viewable on YouTube here)
Modi presented his arguments in a powerful and passionate but reasoned way, and the event triggered a line of thought that here was a man with all the potential needed to become India’s next big leader. At the time, he was a Bharatiya Janata Party national secretary, but was sent back to his home state of Gujarat three weeks later to be chief minister.
Communal riots erupted in Godhra the following February, putting him out of most people’s reckoning as an acceptable chief minister, let alone a national politician.
There was a lot of shouting in the television studio. “He wouldn’t stop bellowing out his single-minded message in decibels that the sound system fortunately muted for television viewers, and I was trying to ask a question – all of which got lost in a fade-out for adverts,” I wrote in a column a few months after the show. “At the end of the program, we laughed and he asked if he’d spoken enough in English (regrettably I do not speak Hindi) for me to know what he was on about”.
He hadn’t because his opening remarks were all in Hindi and he only broke into rather fluent but rather heavily accented English later. He gave the impression of a driven and (sometimes) charming politician – a potent mixture for the political leader that he duly became.
He acknowledged in his opening remarks that Islam had “many good aspects” but said, accusingly, that “when one community says that my community is different from yours, it is higher than yours, and that until you take refuge in mine you cannot get Moksha [liberation or salvation], you cannot get Allah, you cannot get Jesus – then conflict starts”. Hinduism taught Ekam Sat, Viprah Bodha Badhanti (truth is one, says God in different ways), and there would be no conflict if it was accepted that “all religions are the same”. But, he added, “when one says your religion is hopeless and mine is better, then hatred starts, and later when that hatred gets linked into society, terror starts”. Since the 14th century, Islam had aimed to “put its flag in the whole world and the situation today is the result of that”.
That led to a noisy clash with Dr Rafiq Zakaria, an elderly Islamic scholar and Congress politician, who tried to tone down the inference to Islamic terrorism and argued that the religion’s texts contained the language of peace. G Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, had suggested that terrorists came from Islamic countries in a “crescent of crisis” stretching from Pakistan to Algeria.
Eventually Modi called on his “Muslim friends” – a noteworthy phrase – to “understand that terrorism has damaged Islam like anything,” and that they needed to “come out against the terrorist.”
Modi’s performance then and later seemed to suggest a new potential national leader, irrespective of whether or not one accepted his message.
Unlike most politicians, he argued passionately and powerfully for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction. He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground, presenting his case with rare confidence and élan. Whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence. To a bystander, he looked like a logical heir for L K Advani.
That was not a popular view. How could a man who had presided over the Godhra carnage ever win popular respect and a wide following, people asked? Weren’t Guajaratis tiring of the violence and wasn’t Modi already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job in imminent assembly elections?
The BJP, people said, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners. So he had no future and was likely to be sent away to some remote corner of the RSS offices in Nagpur.
Modi won the assembly election and has not looked back – and his English sounded more polished in a long speech that he delivered at the start of his Vibrant Gujarat conference in January last year (on YouTube here)
The question now is whether the potential national leader of the early 2000s can manage the complexities of governing India. Public acceptance of English, more mention of “Muslim friends”, plus laughter – all evident at Star TV in 2001 – might help.
This appeared originally in The Times of India. John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. . His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the lower right hand corner of Asia Sentinel’s landing page.