After appearing to be snubbed by his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s troubled visit to India earlier this month had one bright spot: he looked like he might avoid one of Narendra Modi’s trademark hugs.
But six days later, on February 23, Trudeau finally got The Hug from the Indian prime minister. But sometimes you are damned if you don’t get it and damned if you do. The aftermath of the prime ministerial bear hug may have left Trudeau wondering if he would have been better off being snubbed.
The prime minister’s hugging antics have some of us in the world’s second most populous country cringing – as can happen when a friendly and spontaneous gesture turns into calculated statecraft
Statutory notice to planet Earth and the rest of the universe: hugging (or other bodily contact) is not an essential part of Indian or Asian greeting culture. And the prime minister’s hugging antics have some of us in the world’s second most populous country cringing – as can happen when a friendly and spontaneous gesture turns into calculated statecraft.
I am among millions of supporters of Modi and his hard work to energize India’s economic progress more than any other political leader in living memory. I am also among the citizens hoping Modi-bhai (brother) remembers that he represents the country, and the country is not impressed by his use of “hug-o-nomics” as a strategy for attracting investment or increasing Indo-Canadian trade.
Modi’s advisers should have warned him about the implications of hugging world leaders.
One of his meetings with Donald Trump at the White House in June 2017 was decidedly awkward: a startled US president momentarily tried to dodge the prime minister’s clutch, but then maybe realized that was a diplomatic mistake and cooperated with a damage-control embrace.
Ironically, visiting leaders to India, including Trudeau, have delivered the “namaste” – one of the most respectful and graceful forms of greeting. It’s a simple, humble welcome gesture, and is the traditional favorite in Asian countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Singapore.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family arrive at Air Force Station Palam in New Delhi on February 17 on a seven-day official visit.
Even Modi’s alternative greeting, a vigorous handshake – he reportedly bruised Britain’s Prince William’s right hand – could be falling out of fashion in an increasingly hygiene-conscious world. The familiar handshake has been medically proven to be as much an exchange of germs as a cordial greeting (read The Algebra of Namaste, The Statesman).
The Los Angeles Times reported, “Public health experts are urging handshakes to go the way of cigarettes, at least in healthcare settings,” and the “namaste” could be among global greeting alternatives to the handshake or hug.
Even from a diplomatic perspective, the well-intentioned prime ministerial hug is questionable. It reflects symbolisms over substance, a characteristic of Modi’s style often highlighted by his political opponents.
Modi’s obsession with hugging reveals the deluded nature of his political party, described worldwide as the “Hindu Nationalist Party.” His divisive attachment to the BJP is not at all representative of Hindu culture or India’s core strength as a secular nation.
Elected politicians openly campaigning for a “Hindu India” in next year’s general elections may find themselves voted out of Parliament fast enough to make their heads spin.
Hug-o-nomics embrace dichotomies of Modi’s life: as a young man wanting to become a monk in the Himalayas, he encouraged at least one spiritual brother to walk on the Right Path – but he himself chose a different direction. He is proof of India’s thriving democracy – a boy from a humble background becoming the country’s leader through discipline and hard work, yet his suspected dictatorial tendencies pose a threat to democracy. And then there is the hugging contradiction: proudly celebrating Indian culture but chucking out its traditional “namaste” in favor of awkward alternatives.
A straightforward approach generally pays greater dividends in life than contrived gestures perceived – correctly or incorrectly – as gimmicky or fake.
Historians can only imagine what would have transpired if a world leader had tried to hug British prime minister Winston Churchill or the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin….