Narendra Modi yesterday made his first major speech in English since becoming prime minister – a day after I pointed out that he spoke it fluently in a 2001 television debate, and wondered why he rarely does so now. He was addressing scientists after the successful launch of five foreign satellites on an Indian launch vehicle in Andhra Pradesh.
I’m not suggesting any direct link. Narendra Modi’s reason for speaking English yesterday was almost certainly that the event took place in a part of southern India where Telugu is the regjonal language.
That he did so, however, was significant because it was a very public tacit acceptance by the prime minister that English is the common language that binds India together - people totaling nearly 60 percent of the population list languages other than Hindi as their mother tongue.
Many will of course also speak Hindi, but many do not, and Modi’s government caused an uproar at the end of May, just after it had been elected, when the Home Ministry asked government departments to use Hindi on social media platforms.
That suited the Hindu nationalist dreams of Rajnath Singh, the home minister, who comes from the Hindi-speaking state of Uttar Pradesh, but it infuriated leading regional politicians, especially from southern India, who Modi needs as allies. The government quickly backtracked and said it was only referring to Hindi states and was not excluding English.
Modi’s speech was fluent, helped by a teleprompter, and the flow was more relaxed than when he read a speech at his Vibrant Gujarat conference in January last year. It will now be interesting to see whether he speaks in Hindi or English (maybe a mix of both as he did yesterday) at international events such as the United Nations later this year.
His speech attracted some criticism from journalists. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who has written a book on Modi, described it in The Economic Times this morning as a “most labored effort in public speaking,” with Modi “groping for words the moment he begins speaking in English.” That is neither fair nor accurate, though Modi did speak more slowly than he does in Hindi and his eyes were often focused on the teleprompters
The Times of India got it right, reporting that the speech “confirmed that he is quite comfortable with English when he wants to use the language and his preference to speak in Hindi, even during bilaterals with foreign leaders, is deliberate.”
That surely is main point – India’s new prime minister is most comfortable, personally and politically in Hindi (and his home state’s Gujarati), but is fluent in English.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the lower right hand corner of the landing page