When President Obama greeted a news conference in Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, he made an extra effort to use Hindi language and expressions.Â “Namaste. Mera Pyaar Bhara Namaskar,” he said as he opened the news conference (“My greetings with affection”).Â “Chale saath saath,” he said as itÂ concluded (“lets walk together”).
Obama’s linguistic message was probably prompted by a desire to show humility and be a gracious guest. But in Narendra Modi’s India, his choice of words fit into a changing world of diplomatic linguistics.
Last year,Â there were reports that the then-newly elected Prime Minister Modi would stick to speaking Hindi, rather than English, when meeting with foreign leaders. While other leaders have made similar decisions, theÂ news prompted considerable debate in India about why Modi and theÂ party he leads,Â Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), would push Hindi when Modi can speak reasonably goodÂ English.
Hindi is an official language of the national government of India, thoughÂ each Indian state chooses their own official language. According to the 2001Â census, some 550Â million Indians can speak Hindi, and more thanÂ 125Â million can speak English. The country is very linguistically diverse, however, with 22 different languages considered official. In fact, Hindi is actually Modi’s second languageÂ â€“ he grew up speakingÂ Gujarati.
In India, the English language is a sometimes controversial. A colonial import, it has become known as both the language of the country’s secular elite but also those striving to succeed in a country now at the center of many international businesses. Modi, who has a humble background withÂ roots in Hindu nationalism, may wellÂ balk at both. His governmenthas also pushed the use ofÂ Sanskrit, anÂ ancient Indian language considered the sacred language ofÂ Hinduism.
So far, Modi’s use of Hindi on the internationalÂ stage hasn’t been absolute. While he gave aÂ widely publicized speech in Hindi to the United Nations General Assembly, he has also addressed other world leaders in English.Â During Sunday’sÂ Hyderabad House news conference, he made a statement in English using a teleprompter, thoughÂ he responded to questions from reporters in Hindi. He also had a number of casual conversations with Obama in English (and, incidentally, had his name written in Latin characters on his suit).