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  • Why won’t he speak English?

    Posted On September 16, 2002

    By Karan Thapar

    I suppose you could say she likes Atal Behari Vajpayee. At first it wasn’t obvious but realisation slowly dawned when political discussions with Mummy never got very far. She would agree with the points I made but the conclusion was always refuted. Even my sisters could not persuade her. “I don’t care what anyone says” Mummy would insist “he’s a good man”

    May be but sometimes goodness isn’t good enough. Last week at the UN was a classic example. The Prime Minister had some important points to make and the UN General Assembly was arguably the best venue to make them. In theory the world was there to listen. Except it didn’t. Not because they didn’t want to nor because they disagreed and switched off. No, they didn’t listen because they couldn’t understand. Mr. Vajpayee spoke in Hindi, a language that is only spoken within the borders of India. In fact, even in large parts of our own country it’s an alien language. The South and the North East would have found it as incomprehensible as Europe, America and Africa.

    Yet the paradox is Mr. Vajpayee’s speech was not an annual, laudatory and ceremonial number. To be honest, speeches at the UN often are. But on this occasion he wanted the world to hear him carefully. For a start, he intended to rebut Gen. Musharraf’s attack of the previous day. Then he wished to draw the international community’s attention to India’s position on terrorism. Finally, he wanted to suggest a more muscular UN regime to pursue last year’s commitment to fight terrorism. These were important matters. In their own way each defines India’s national interest. So if ever there was an occasion to speak in a language the world would easily and comfortably follow this was it.

    Why then did Mr. Vajpayee speak in Hindi? There could be three possible reasons. Firstly, because he isn’t comfortable in English. Secondly, because he believes India’s pride requires its prime minister to address the world in the national language. Thirdly, to show up Gen. Musharraf, who not only spoke in English the day before but cannot speak Urdu fluently.

    I’m afraid none of these explanations makes sense. In reverse order, showing up General Musharraf may be pleasing but at what cost? If the international community cannot follow what you are saying the price is undoubtedly too high. Nor is India such a fragile nation that we must force Hindi upon an uncomprehending world simply to boost our own ego. Those days are long gone. In fact, as our IT success shows, today English is our strength. And Mr. Vajpayee speaks English well enough. After all this wasn’t an extempore and improvised peroration. A speech in the grand hall of the General Assembly is not the same as a public performance on the lawns of the Boat Club in Delhi. With a little careful practice he could have learnt to deliver it properly.

    That, I suppose, is the real problem. The Prime Minister is disinclined to learn. May be he’s lazy, may be he thinks he’s too old, but whatever the reason he hasn’t made the effort to teach himself how to read his English speeches more effectively. And before you think I’m making a surprisingly silly or slender point let me remind you of the number of world leaders who’ve had to learn this simple but telling technique. Mrs. Thatcher was one. In fact she even had to modulate her voice. It used to be shrill and jarring. George Bush is another. Actually he’s still not as good as he could be but he certainly holds your attention.

    Now pause to reflect on what Mr. Vajpayee’s Hindi cost India. On the previous day, the BBC broadcast Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf in full. They would have almost certainly done same with the Indian Prime Minister. After all, the BBC’s Indian audience is considerably greater. But in the end they chose not to. The only reason is because he spoke in Hindi.

    The argument that a Putin, a Kim, or a Koizumi speak Russian, Korean and Japanese at the UN doesn’t change things one little bit. There are good reasons why they don’t bother with English and none of them apply to Vajpayee. For one, they don’t know the language. More importantly, they don’t have to struggle to attract the world’s attention. Mr. Vajpayee’s position is altogether different.

    If you ask me, one can’t avoid the depressing conclusion that our Prime Minister forgot his central purpose in going to the UN. He was there to communicate India’s message. To be understood he should have spoken in a language the world understands. By refusing to do so he rendered himself ineffective. Last week this good man let his country down.

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