Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chipko moments with world leaders have obviously titillated the Congress. The party’s #hugplomacy video mocking the PM’s warm and fuzzy diplomatic style reveals a puerile urge towards low-brow social media sensationalism and lack of empathy with popular culture.
The PM’s penchant for the jhappi, the crass youngsters in charge of the Congress optics should have noted, is shared by tens of millions of Punjabis. Not to mention “Hugging Amma” Mata Amritanandamayi, a spiritual leader with a global following, whom the PM reveres. Amma is said to have delivered 36 million hugs and people (including Congressmen) are lining up for more.
Perhaps the post-Sonia Gandhi phase whiz kids missed ‘Munnabhai MBBS’, the smash Bollywood hit which put the bro-hug on the map: “Aye mamu, jadoo ki jhappi de daal aur baat khatam”. Let’s face it, the jhappi is no less a cultural export than Yoga and all power to Modi in promoting it.
In seeking to hug-shame Modi, the Congress has shown a peculiarly un-Indian approach to the concept of personal space. It sees Modi’s buddy hugs as ‘awkward’, i.e., an unwarranted intrusion. Jawaharlal Nehru, on the other hand, had no problem getting up close and personal with Edwina Mountbatten and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Is the hug too close for comfort, a breach of some subjective minimum distance mandated by diplomatic etiquette? Should the PM adapt his hellos to the cultural practices of his counterparts? If so, he should have met his Japanese counterpart with a carefully calibrated bow. And he should practice ‘la bise’ (air kiss) to greet Brigitte Macron with a pappi or two.
Speaking of pappis, US president George Bush famously smooched the Saudi king and for good measure, held hands with him. German chancellor Angela Merkel is known to have a penchant for pappis. Heads of state such as Bush, Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, etc. have received the pappi treatment. But no one dares to read their warmth as weakness.
So there’s no earthly reason why PM Modi should eschew the bear-hug for a handshake, ‘la bise’ or a bow. For us Indians, the ‘namaste’ is a formal greeting, but to break barriers and establish a personal bond, nothing beats the good old jhappi.
A hug, modern science tells us, is a handshake from the heart, a way to establish an emotional connect. Hugging and kissing raises oxytocin levels and aids person-to-person bonding. The bro-hug thus has its place in diplomacy, signifying affinity, agreement or reconciliation.
The jhappi-mocking video argues the kind of cynical, shallow mindset which derisively refers to green activists as ‘tree-huggers’ (like the village women who started the chipko movement). And only a dyed-in-wool homophobe would equate a bro-hug with a gay hug.
If Congress president Rahul Gandhi did, in fact, personally approve the video, he has revealed a distressing immaturity. If he didn’t, then he needs to exercise greater control over his party. Putting out the video betrays an insecurity vis-a-vis Modi and a lack of focus on real issues. In trying to establish that Modi has clay feet, the Congress has put its own foot squarely in its mouth.
Whatever happened to Rahul’s development rant? He was on a roll, studiously avoiding personal attacks on the PM, which have always proved counter-productive. The strategy won him the approval of the media and revived the Congress in Gujarat. In fact, he sacked Gandhi family loyalist Mani Shankar Aiyar for describing Modi as ‘neech’.
The Congress’ social media cell is currently headed by Divya Spandana aka Ramya, a smart young woman who specialises in sharp tweets. She took over in May, 2017 and turned the Congress barely-there social media presence around. Ramya has deservedly been showered with fulsome praise by the media in recent months.
The #hugplomacy video, however, was an error of judgment which takes the Congress back to square one. The timing of the video made it even more unfortunate; it was posted minutes after the PM had greeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the airport, breaking protocol to do so. If the Congress was seeking to undermine India’s diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Netanyahu, it could have fielded credible senior leaders to make a statement.
The cheap shot strategy signals that the Congress has no alternative vision to offer and is, as HRD minister Prakash Javdekar said, at its “lowest ebb”. If anyone needs a hug from voters, it’s Rahul Gandhi. But at this rate, they are more likely to give him a shove.