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The ascent of Hindi at Raisina Hill — which houses the Prime Minister’s Office and powerful ministries of defence, finance and external affairs — is one of the first perceptible signs of change promised by Narendra Modi.
Be it the cabinet or Congress core group meetings, English was the dominant language in the UPA’s top echelons. But Modi — who can speak English — is more comfortable in Hindi, unapologetically so. And the impact is visible.
During his meeting with secretaries last week, he spoke only in Hindi. When deciding on a PMO appointment, sources told HT, the candidate’s fluency in Hindi is a criterion to enable easy and direct communication.
In a break with tradition, the PM has also decided to speak in Hindi during bilateral meetings with foreign leaders and have interpreters translate it, emulating China and Russia.
Moreover, Modi communicates in Hindi with senior ministerial colleagues and party leaders, switching to Gujarati only when meeting leaders of the state.
The rise of Hindi has led to murmurs among bureaucrats, particularly those from south India, that this approach will put the non-Hindi speaking officials at a disadvantage.
But a minister, who did not want to be named, rejected this perception.
“It is a level-playing field. Top ministers are from north and west India and may prefer Hindi. But they can work well with leaders and officials from across the linguistic divide,” he said.
He added that the BJP wants to build on electoral gains in south and east India. “We will obviously not going to get trapped in the politics of language,” he said.
Purushottam Agarwal, a well-known Hindi writer and a visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says the use of Hindi is a sign of “rootedness” of this government.
As the “first true non-Congress PM” and a man with a massive mandate, Agarwal argues, Modi suffers “no complexes”.
Agarwal says that the usage of Hindi also has a political point for Modi, who positioned himself throughout the campaign as an outsider, a man of the masses against Delhi’s English-speaking elite. He also rejected the charge of lack of diversity, saying other languages were not being suppressed.
The development has sharpened the debate between advocates of non-Hindi languages, who complain about the bias for Hindi, and proponents of Hindi who believe English is given weight disproportionate to its reach.
Bureaucrats down south think the transformation from English to Hindi should be gradual since translators and interpreters can make governance difficult.
"After 10-20 years of service in a state like Kerala, when a bureaucrat reaches Delhi, he will find it difficult to grasp the written language," said K Mohandas, former secretary of Shipping.