Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke tradition last week when he spoke with foreign dignitaries in Hindi, showing he isn't under a colonial shadow to want to communicate in English. Surprise was in store for Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, when he noticed a translator sitting along in a one-on-one meeting between the two leaders. In the past, leaders would refrain from having translators to convey their messages since English is the unofficial lingua franca in South Asia, and enjoys the status of being the language of diplomacy.
It was not just Rajapakse's, who was told to devolve powers to Tamil-dominated Jafna region and attend to their issues, turn to be surprised, but Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen and Mauritius' Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam too were perplexed on realising that Modi was speaking in Hindi. The ministry of external affairs has arranged for a translator to translate Modi's words in English. The ministry, however, didn't need a translator for Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif, who felt comfortable to communicate with Modi in Urdu. "Basically, the exchange was in Urdu and Hindi. Much like India and Pakistan, the languages are akin to two umbilical cords of the same foetus," a diplomat told dna.
The heads of state from six South Asia nations and of Mauritius attended Modi's swearing-in ceremony on May 26, and held bilateral meetings with him the following day. At the delegation-level talks, the secretaries present at the meetings translated Modi's words into English for the guests.
Diplomats said Modi had actually tried to ape Chinese and Japanese leaders, who speak to foreign dignitaries in their own language, even though they are conversant and fluent in English. "Modi has tried to assert India's national identity in South Asia by talking in Hindi. He played the national card very well," they say. The BJP's first prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was known for his Hindi oratory skills, but on occasions linked to international diplomacy, he would take recourse to English.
Modi asked Rajapakse for an "early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution". He said the government "should expedite the process of national reconciliation in a manner that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Sri Lanka".
Analysts believe diplomats in Colombo were expecting the new prime minister to settle down in office, address domestic issues and then turn to bilateral concerns with neighbours. But Modi put to rest that assumption in just 20 minutes, first with Sri Lanka and then with Pakistan.
During last Thursday's weekly ministerial meeting, Rajapakse confirmed that Modi had raised with him issues relating to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, police and land powers and the issue of fishermen. He made it clear that the Indian Prime Minister had stated his new government's position. In responding to them, he said, he had also stated the Sri Lanka government's position. Rajapakse was impressed that ministers were taking their oath about ensuring secrecy. He said at next week's ministerial meeting, he would present a memorandum that ministers in Sri Lanka too swear such secrecy on matters relating to the government.