Monday, September 29, 2014


Modi at the UN: Asserting India’s global role

The earth did not quite shake as Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the 69th United Nations General Assembly, but the PM did make his presence felt as the representative of a sixth of humanity, seeking to set the agenda for the multilateral organisation and proposing a global, comprehensive convention to tackle terror.

Modi dealt with Pakistan with welcome restraint, refusing to be drawn into a verbal duel over Kashmir to which Pak prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech at the UN had constituted an invitation. Modi reiterated India’s stand that Kashmir is a bilateral matter and that discussions cannot take place with a terror gun held to India’s head. By stressing the need to focus on the recent calamitous floods in Kashmir, Modi sought to present a contrast between Pakistan’s political preoccupation with Kashmir and India’s concern for the welfare of the people of the state.

As speeches go, this is fine, but actual concern has to be demonstrated by action on the ground, not by sweeping rhetoric. After a flood of waters, Kashmir now needs not a flood of words but systematic relief and rehabilitation. Restoring the traditional storm water channels that had allowed water to drain away, contingency plans to deploy heavy pumps to pump out water from low-lying areas where posh colonies have come up, and other such things have low rhetorical yield but address the real concerns of the flood-affected.
That Modi spoke in Hindi is perfectly in order. Hindi is spoken by larger numbers than are three of the UN’s six official languages, French, Arabic and Russian. So, actually, are several other Indian languages. Indian languages do deserve more official representation in international fora. But the kind of Hindi Modi spoke certainly was not in order.

When Modi speaks ex tempore, he speaks the language that the common people of north India understand, the Hindustani of Hindi films. That is one of the sources of his popularity. But his speech at UN was in the artificial mould of Sangh ideologues, obscure Sanskrit words skewering and displacing common words that have their roots in Urdu/Persian. The Sangh has for long tried to create a communal divide in language as well, trying to excise all traces of Persian from Hindustani and replace them with words borrowed from Sanskrit. Sanghis choose to ignore the common roots of both Sanskrit and Persian in the Indo-Aryan family of lanugages, in their constant, pervasive effort to portray the Muslim as the other.

Modi breezed through universal disarmament and non-proliferation. Terror was used to make the point that India can also take global initiatives, by way of seeking an international convention on it. But Modi chose to gloss over the emergence of the Islamic State, as if preparing the ground not to play any activist role in the emerging international alliance against it.

References to democracy, India’s tradition of multilateralism, and claim to universalism founded on ancient philosophy served to both be politically correct and clamber on to the moral high ground. The call to complete action on revamping the Security Council by the 70th General Assembly next year, for maritime, outer space and cyber space security and to continue with equal but differentiated responsibilities of developed and developing countries towards the environment sought to communicate India’s assertion of its rightful place in the comity of nations and the comprehensive sweep of its concerns.

Modi was conscious that he was addressing a huge domestic audience and kept his pitch on development high. That he called for every nation to do its bit to achieve development, in contrast to his willingness to let a comprehensive multilateral convention take on the work on terror, showed his seriousness on the subject.

Two thing struck an odd note in Modi’s speech. The first was his reference to Yoga. Modi offered Yoga as India’s contribution to combating climate change. Of course, he did not mean to suggest that if all seven billion humans stood on their head before breakfast every day, global warming would reverse itself. He wished to assert the balance between mind and body that Yoga seeks to secure, and, thereby, emphasise the restraint sustainability calls for on the desire to constantly expand consumption. This makes sense.

What does not make sense is his party propping up, in the name of Yoga, false apostles who barely know the difference between contorted bodily postures and control of the mind via control of the body that Yoga pursues.

The second oddity in Modi’s speech was a reference to new divisions in Europe. Does this mark a departure in New Delhi’s stand on Ukraine’s civil strife? India had ruffled American feathers by stating that Russia had legitimate concerns over developments in Ukraine and Crimea. Is there any plan to deviate from India’s eminently sensible pursuit of encouraging a multipolar distribution of power in the world, to prevent unipolar hegemony that would constrict the space a developing country like India would have? The government should elaborate its views on the subject to the domestic public.

On the whole, Modi made an impressive debut on the global stage, even if he did not outline any vision comparable to the rousing call for a world free of nuclear weapons that Rajiv Gandhi had made in his 1988 address to the UN, which continues to rally support 26 years later.