Indian leaders returning to Hindi

Indian leaders returning to Hindi
Last month, Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) spoke in English to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who replied in Hindi.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi this week, he spoke in Hindi, India's most widely used official language and the tongue commonly used to conduct business in Parliament, other than English.

Interpreters were on hand to translate Mr Modi's comments from Hindi to Mandarin as he talked about deepening economic ties with China in response to the reach-out by the Chinese leadership.

Last month, when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maldives President Abdulla Yameen spoke in English during their separate bilateral exchanges with Mr Modi after the latter's swearing-in ceremony, they were reportedly a little taken aback when the new Prime Minister, known to be proficient in English, chose to respond in Hindi.

Mr Modi, of course, required no translation for either of the two leaders' comments.

In his previous capacity as three-time chief minister of Gujarat state, he conducted his interactions with foreign diplomats, including those from Singapore, in English.

Mr Modi appears to be taking a leaf from the Chinese, Russians and Japanese who use their own languages in diplomatic exchanges.

Name plates at official briefings are in Hindi and some ministers, despite knowing English, are choosing to make comments only in Hindi.

Hindi and English are both approved as the official languages of the federal government. But in Delhi's corridors of power, English has always been the preferred language of use.

So, the fact that Mr Modi and his Cabinet have been making a point of interacting in Hindi has not been lost on observers.

Many see the move as an assertion of Indian nationalism. "I think the purpose is to strengthen our sense of nationalism. We have a perfectly developed language just as the Japanese, Chinese and Russians do," said Mr Rajiv Bhatia, a former diplomat, adding that the use of Hindi would add value to Indian diplomacy.

"It is a positive development... It will strengthen India's image as an important Asian state which is proud of its leaders speaking their language. It will contribute to a positive perception of India and I don't see it causing any kind of practical difficulty."

Some link the pointed use of Hindi to the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist body that is the ideological backbone of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and from whence most party members, including Mr Modi, began their political career.

"For Modi it is symbolic. The RSS firmly believes Hindi can bring India together. It is a metaphor for one language one nation," said political analyst Sudhir Panwar, who is based in the Hindi-speaking state of Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP, which has come to power on the back of a massive mandate, gained popularity on the plank of Hindu nationalism. The party upped its score from just two MPs in 1984 to 282 MPs in this year's elections.

But analysts caution that an over-emphasis on Hindi, which is spoken in the country's heartland by a majority of Indians, could alienate parts of south and north-eastern India, where Hindi is not as common and where the BJP is hoping to make inroads. For instance, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, people prefer to speak in Tamil or English.

"There is a big danger in the long run for the party which aims to expand in non-Hindi speaking states," said Professor Sanjay Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "Too much emphasis on Hindi would not be good for expansion of the party in non-Hindi speaking areas."

Mr Modi's use of Hindi in all diplomatic engagements and in most of his interactions with his colleagues is a departure from the previous Congress-led government which conducted all key meetings in English.

The Cambridge-educated former prime minister Manmohan Singh is also more comfortable in English, as is Congress party president Sonia Gandhi.

Although the late Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi propagated the use of Hindi, when he was prime minister from 1984 to 1989, it did not lead to Hindi becoming more popular than English.

Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj seems to be following the practice of the previous BJP prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was in power from 1998 to 2004 and would switch between Hindi and English.

Ms Swaraj handled both the health and telecommunications portfolios in the Vajpayee government. Sources say she has been speaking in English with foreign dignitaries who speak to her in English but uses Hindi for those who speak to her in their own language.

So when she met Mr Wang on Sunday, she spoke in Hindi but was equally comfortable conversing in English with Oman foreign minister Yousuf Alawi Abdullah when the latter visited India last week.

This article was first published on June 13, 2014.
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