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Why speaking English in Sriharikota was good politics : Multilingual PM Modi

New Delhi, 1 July-2014,Ayeshea-Perera: The latest one came along with ISRO’s launch of the PSLV satellite at Sriharikota on Monday, when he chose to make a fairly long speech in English. This, after his much trumpeted decision to only engage with foreign leaders in Hindi.

Why speaking English in Sriharikota was good politics : Multilingual PM Modi

Narendra Modi at ISRO: PTI

That he was not the same fluid orator in English as he was in Hindi was painfully obvious. Although he did not stumble, the usual spark was gone. The Modi that would conduct mass crowds like a well tuned orchestra was missing.

The ideas, as pointed out in this Economic Times piece penned by his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay in his speech were by no means simple. As he points out, “He must have made quite an effort to prepare for this speech. The speech writer would have laboured to make the points not appear very technical yet not very commonplace. In the end the headline points came from two issues — choice of language and the call for a Saarc satellite.

So what prompted Modi to make the effort? He has after all, been patently unapologetic about his linguistic preferences. The answer, as it turns out, is political.

It does not require great analytical skills to imagine what Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s reaction would have been if he walked into the heart of her state and delivered a speech at an important national event in Hindi.

The Tamil Nadu polity have after all, been among the most vocal detractors of a recent directive from Modi to various government departments that they need to give preference to Hindi on social media.

Shortly after the move became public Jayalalithaa was among the first to write to Modi. In her letter, she described the Home Ministry’s proposal as “against the letter and spirit” of the Official Languages Act, 1963,” while pointing out that the “highly sensitive issue” caused “disquiet” to the people of Tamil Nadu “who are very proud of and passionate about their linguistic heritage”.
Social media by their very nature were not only accessible to all persons on the internet, but were meant to be a means of communication to persons living in all parts of India, including those in ‘Region C’, she said. “People located in ‘Region C’ with whom the Government of India’s communication needs to be in English, will not have access to such public information if it is not in English.”

And while Modi may have the necessary Lok Sabha majority to technically do as he pleases, he is clearly in no mood to further aggravate Jayalalithaa, with whom he has shared a good relationship in the past. Furthermore, he needs her support in the Rajya Sabha, which she has promised him, but not unconditionally.

“BJP won with a majority. They do not need support. We will see about Rajya Sabha when the time comes”, she told reporters after a 40 minute meeting with Modi in New Delhi.

In his Economic Times piece, Mukhopadhyay agrees.

“The Centre has doused the passions and Mr Modi would not have wanted to stoke linguistic embers by speaking in Hindi. He decided to ward off a political flash point by risking personal derision”, he says.

But is the relationship between Modi and non-Hindi languages as acrimonious as is being portrayed? Is Jayalalithaa the only thing standing between Modi and the complete and total ‘Hindi’ domination of India? This piece in Outlook suggests that it’s not really that simple.

While acknowledging that Modi and his new government are clearly more confident in Hindi and will make policy decisions in that language (an almost complete contrast to the UPA which almost exclusively did so in English), it questions the assumption that this necessarily translates into an anti-English stand. According to the article:

“Modi’s attitude to language, in fact, has many shades and nuances. Indeed, there’s a little-known fact about the Modi administration in its 12-year reign in Gujarat. As chief minister, the current PM actually promoted more English-medium schools under the government sector than any of his predecessors in the state”.

It also puts forward the argument that as a pro-globalisation leader, Modi, like many Gujaratis may prefer his mother tongue but will be in no hurry to chuck the language of international trade, investment and foreign relations out the window.
Furthermore, as the article points out, Modi’s personal decision to interact with foreign leaders in Hindi has not stopped Sushma Swaraj from talking to them in English, or Arun Jaitley from planning to make the entire union budget speech in Hindi.

Despite criticisms about Modi’s fluency in English (Firstpost editor Anant Rangaswami exhorted him to never make speeches in the language again), his decision to do so was clearly a politically savvy one. It also gives us an important insight into the Prime Minister. Which is that he does not allow his personal preferences to dictate all his political interactions or restrict him from gaining an advantage when he sees one. And this is the mark of a politician who thinks – be it in Hindi, Gujarati, or English. [Input source: FP]