When Shinzo Abe landed at the airport in Ahmedabad, he walked straight into the outstretched arms of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who enveloped him in a warm embrace. This was not the Japanese Prime Minister’s maiden visit to India nor was it was the first time that he was meeting his Indian counterpart in the last three years. Yet the two leaders hugged each other like long-lost friends.
Close friend of Modi he may be, but Abe is not the only one. The Indian Prime Minister has held to his bosom other world leaders in recent months, old and potential. In his very first meeting with President Donald Trump in the United States, Modi promptly pulled the new and unsuspecting President into a warm embrace. If the otherwise grim-looking Trump was a bit uncomfortable that first instance, he soon relaxed and the subsequent hugs during the course of Modi’s visit to the US exuded spontaneity. In due course of time, these embraces may even equal the Modi-Barack Obama hugs in warmth.
Earlier, Prime Minister Modi applied the outreach to world leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and his predecessor Francois Hollande, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Russian President Vladimir Putin and others. Not all of these embraces seemed nice. Hollande appeared distinctly uncomfortable, for instance, but perhaps he would have eased had he continued in office and received a fews more embraces!
The Modi embrace has caught the world’s attention. A news website devoted an entire article on the subject, titled, ‘Why PM Modi should stop hugging world leaders’. It argued that the Indian Prime Minister “does not seem to understand that with world leaders emotional lines are pre-drawn”. The article went on to say that “there is little or no possibility of close friendships” and that “all of them have emotional fortresses around them which cannot be breached by a head of state of another country”. It concluded that “these expansive gestures do little good to Prime Minister Modi’s image even if they release more oxytocin to the brains… There are bound to be better ways of pursuing India’s strategic interests”.
Phew! What a concoction of geo-strategy and medicine. Nonetheless, the Indian leader is not to be discouraged, even by media slights ridiculing his initiative. It’s unlikely that he is burning the midnight oil seeking to analyse the technicalities of his hug. It appears the only leaders that will be spared are the obvious ones. Women, for one. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets a formal though warm handshake; so does Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — and no peck on the cheek which Western leaders deliver as a matter of routine to those in their part of the world.
It’s difficult to imagine that Modi will embrace Chinese President Xi Jinping, though it’s not altogether ruled out at some later stage when the Chinese have a change of heart over Pakistan-related matters. The maximum that Modi has gone so far is to share a swing with Xi at a riverside park in Gujarat, when the two leaders came closest to rocking. What can be safely abandoned is the prospect of the Indian Prime Minister hugging a Pakistani General, even in moments when the river of warmth is straining to breach the dam.
But easily the two most talked about Modi hugs are the ones involving now deposed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu. In December 2015, the Indian Prime Minister suddenly arrived in Lahore to greet his Pakistani counterpart on the latter’s birthday. There was apparent warmth and sincerity in the embrace between them. But one freezing look from the Pakistani Army, and the warmth seemed to dissipate from the Pakistani leader’s side as weeks rolled by. The Lahore Hug could have become a turning point in India-Pakistan relations, but the hope was dashed to the ground as Sharif returned to the all-familiar but stifling embrace of the military and the militant outfits which it controlled.
The outcome of the Modi-Netanyahu hug has been more cheerful. From the time Modi landed in Israel on the historic visit — the first by an Indian Prime Minister — to the time he left, there must have been more than half-a-dozen embraces between the two leaders. Indeed, observers had given up the count, as each embrace warmer than the previous one and came at the drop of a hat. The “my friend” invocation by both leaders left no one in doubt whatsoever on where India-Israel relations were heading to.
The ‘embrace phenomenon’ has worked rather well in the Indian context elsewhere too. In the film, Munnabhai MBBS, the protagonist Sanjay Dutt takes to hugging miserable patients in a hospital, delivering to them a current of happiness and hope. This jadu ki jhappi clicked for the actor and the film which was a huge success at the box-office. There was even a Punjabi song by the name rendered by Mika Singh and Neha Kakkar independent of the film.
Spiritual leader Anandamayi Ma embraces devotees to impart peace and happiness to souls in distress. Such has been the phenomenal success that The New York Times did an article on her titled, ‘Amma’s multifaceted empire, built on hugs’. It said that the spiritual leader had gained the reputation of being a “hugging saint”.
Modi is not a spiritual deliverer nor is he an actor out to craft dreams on celluloid. He operates in the ruthless world of politics and diplomacy. If an embrace here and a hug there can click to India’s advantage, let’s have more of it. If nothing else, Narendra Modi will go down in history as the best hugging Indian Prime Minister ever!
(The writer is a senior political commentator and public affairs analyst)
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