As I write this, TV news channels are playing and replaying clips of Narendra Modi’s ‘English speech’ at the Vibrant Gujarat 2013 summit. Almost equal to the lavish praise afforded him by captains of Indian industry is the attention his breaking out in the Queen’s language has attracted.
For those obsessed with the ‘will he, won’t he’ question of Modi’s move to Delhi post 2014, his choice of language appears to be the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle that they sought.
The verdict is: Ah, he’s taken the trouble to address the gathering in English= it’s a sign that he’s preparing for prime ministership of the country. It’s a funny business, this issue of Indian politicians and English.
Prime Ministers Guzarilal Nanda, Lala Bahadur Shastri, Charan Singh, Deve Gowda, Chandra Shekhar, for instance, were cognisant of the language but hesitant in its fluency.
Indira Gandhi not only spoke English but French too. Her son, Rajiv, did not share her linguistic acumen but expressed himself adequately enough (though his grandfather’s eloquence eluded him).
But, of course, eloquence is a different matter altogether from delivering speeches in English! And linguistic competence has nothing to do with effective communication.
P V Narasimha Rao, it is said, spoke over a dozen languages but, alas, was a disaster (“He can speak in ten languages but can’t make up his mind in any,” it was said of him); Atal Bihari Vajpayee, though conversant in English, never chose it as his first language of communication and yet is regarded as India’s most brilliant orator.
A decade ago there were rumours that Sharad Pawar, in a bid for prime ministership, was taking English-speaking lessons to prepare for the job. The assumption, of course, being that without knowledge of the language, a person’s candidacy is worthless.
That assumption still holds true. With coalition politics having come to stay in India and the increasing need for leaders to carry a variety of regional parties along with them, the need for India’s prime minister to be fluent in English is even more compelling.
Hence, Modi’s speech on Friday and its assumed significance. That he would take the trouble to deliver an important message in a ‘foreign language’ and open himself up to the risk of ridicule signifies the import of English for him and his party members.
Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, who perhaps grew up speaking English at home — and most likely thinking in the language too —, appears to falter in both English and Hindi.
As children we were often exposed to meetings with V K Krishna Menon, the charismatic left-leaning defence minister in Nehru’s Cabinet. His exquisite English drawl was enhanced by an earthy Keralite accent. No wonder he had some of the world’s most sophisticated people eating out of his palm!
Of course, language is just one more thing people use to set themselves apart — though, ironically, the purpose of it ought to be to bring people closer. And so, however politically incorrect it sounds, a leader fluent in English does have an advantage over one who isn’t.
Except in the cases of our Oxbridge educated Prime Minister who has worked in the world’s top English-speaking capitals as an academic and banker.
Modi’s Johnny-come-lately attempt appears to have trumped him in this department too!
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer
The episode holds lessons for both domestic policy and international co-ordination