Modi’s love of ‘idli-dosa’ hides his govt’s liking for ‘dal-roti’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edapaddi Palaniswami (right) during the 56th annual convocation of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras in Chennai. (PTI Photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have warmed the hearts of Tamil enthusiasts with his “love” for their tongue and cuisine, but lurking underneath is an intriguing dalliance with Hindi, a language that his government is trying hard to promote at the expense of other languages.

On the one hand, we have Modi spouting an ancient Tamil line during his address at the United Nations General Assembly and then following up with his “concession” that the Tamil language was one of the oldest in the world, besides the totally satisfying “idli, vada  and dosa”  that he enjoyed.

On the other hand, there is his closest aide Union Home Minister Amit Shah who forcefully advocates Hindi as India’s unifying language as part of the BJP’s pet One Nation, One “this that and the other” policy, including language.

Either the two top politicians in leadership positions of the ruling BJP  are playing a game of “good cop, bad cop”,  “blow hot, blow cold” or something along those lines or there is a serious confusion over how to go forward on the language issue, the ultimate aim being to  somehow place Hindi on the nation’s language pedestal.

The challenge, or the conundrum, for the BJP Hindivadis is how to push Hindi without actually appearing to do so. Soon after returning to power in May this year, the government came up with the draft of the New Education Policy which mandated that Hindi be taught in all schools under the three-language formula. Vociferous protests from the South, mainly Tamil  Nadu, resulted in a quick withdrawal of the proposal.

Also read: Howdy! Houston ‘jugalbandi’ to massage Narendra Modi image

Since then, other “quiet” moves have been attempted to give more space to Hindi or to those from Hindi-knowing states. In July, the government announced that 13 regional languages would be included along with Hindi and English for direct recruitment of Scale-1 officers and office assistants in Regional Rural Banks. So far so good.

But what was left untouched was the removal of a rule that had earlier made it mandatory for a person to have studied 10 years in a local language to be eligible for the post. This rule had existed to enable rural candidates get jobs in banks that catered to their areas. In the absence of noticeable protests, the rule has not been brought back, thereby working to the disadvantage of local people when it comes to employment in regional rural banks, especially in the non-Hindi speaking south.

In the same month of July, for recruitment in the postal department, three days before the exam, the Modi government withdrew the option of writing them in regional languages, retaining only Hindi and English. Until last year, candidates could write these exams in 15 regional languages including Modi’s “much loved” Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam.

Predictably, members of Parliament from Tamil Nadu protested forcing the government to annul the exams that had  already been conducted a couple of days earlier. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced fresh exams would be held in all regional languages.

Also read: Modi govt can’t get it wrong; even its failures are successes

The surprising element is how a federal government can even contemplate excluding regional languages in an all-India exam which still remains one of the most attractive avenues for jobs among a large number of youngsters waiting for a break. At the same time, Hindi and English are sought to be given primacy to the orphaning of regional languages.

In politics, this sort of policy pronouncement and a quick reversal is called a “test balloon”. What this means is that the government which is not sure of how people will react to a policy will let out a controversial statement or announce a contentious decision and then wait for the street reaction. If all is quiet, the policy would be absorbed into a new framework of rules. If an uproar breaks out, the move is rescinded and peace is temporarily restored.

But what is key here is the intent. In the present case, the intent undoubtedly is to marginalise all others while giving prominence to the language of dal-roti, Hindi. English will tag along for a while until that will be knocked out too. A peek into the history of the BJP’s mentor RSS will make it clear that the Modi government’s back-and-forth on the language issue is not incidental. For an outfit that has always stood for the primacy of Hindi, the government’s moves to exclude other languages seems pretty deliberate.

Also read: Winning them softly: Modi’s Tamil references keeps protests at bay

The only factor that appears to be holding back the central government on the Hindi issue is that the BJP is still vying for a foothold in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the south and Bengal in the east, besides Punjab in the north. All these are among non-Hindi dominant states, and for the BJP to even fancy its chance of coming to power, it has to first pay obeisance to the various regional languages that are linguistically rich, historically strong and culturally vibrant.

At the same time, the Modi-Shah leadership has to keep the pro-Hindi lobby in the BJP-RSS camp happy. Probably to get at some sort of balance, the two leaders have devised a novel method of pushing through something unpopular only to withdraw at the slightest sign of popular protest.

Shah may claim he had been misunderstood when he said only Hindi can be a unifying  factor but no one was left fooled by the intent of his statement.

As for Modi, he can indulge in some flattering talk in and on Tamil. But, as they say,  the taste of the pudding is in the eating.  As long as his government continues to play the cat and mouse game in trying to promote Hindi to the exclusion of all others,  he will not be able to convince non-Hindi  speakers  of  genuineness in his love for Tamil, or any of the other regional languages.