Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States has drawn a great deal of attention for what was said, what was unsaid, and how it was said. The first two are valid subjects, the jury is out on the third. The visit was marked by the expected address to the US Congress, the state dinner in which a serving of exotic mushrooms was on offer, and the joint press conference with US President Joe Biden. This visit, unlike his earlier ones, brought challenging voices to the fore – guests turned down the state dinner invitation, demonstrations were held, and newspapers published essays and advertisements about repressive measures of his government in India. Marketing India as the ‘mother of democracy’ was not as simple as it used to be.
While the PM garnered praise from his flock and criticism from the other side, what generated a fair debate was the sniggering and snide comments about his over-eagerness with hosts, and his English diction and choice of words. The critique, including that from the opposition parties, had the inescapable element of mocking him for language. This cuts both ways – making fun of his language rather than the substance of his speech, in a perverse way, helps him play the victim who needs his flock’s support but, on the other hand, when his party has mocked opposition leaders without reserve then there is no reason for him to get a free pass.
India’s Prime Minister mixing up words and using teleprompters is not great symbolism but it would be better to focus on the substance of what he spoke. His answer at the press conference – a rare appearance for him – to a question about Indian democracy and minorities tested syllogism. Hold him accountable for his assertions about democracy and his convenient devotion to Mahatma Gandhi when on foreign soil, not only for confusing “investigating” with the simpler “investing”. The mocking can come across as elitist – it puts his critics in an unenviable classist position but, importantly, it lets him off the hook on the substance of what was said.