Narendra Modi is the most physically
demonstrative Indian leader in years.
During his visit to the US, he enveloped Facebook
boss Mark Zuckerberg in a massive hug and
reprised the embrace with President Barack
Obama in New York. In August, he hugged the
crown prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin
Zayed al-Nahyan, inspiring some droll memes.
Mr Modi has also hugged Japanese Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe and the former Australian
Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The mother of all
hugs came in January with a humongous embrace
of President Obama. Delirious Indian news
channels ran tickers screaming ‘Modi/Obama
hug’ because, as The New York Times reported,
“this was not expected”. The newspaper dubbed
the development as a “quadrilateral security
Whatever the case, Mr Modi has learned to stop
worrying about public displays of affection when
he meets the rich and the powerful: Google “Modi
hugging”, and it spits out more than 300,000
results in under a second.
Indians and their politicians are not known for
being so touchy-feely. Cuban leader Fidel Castro
scandalised many Indians when he gave former
prime minister Indira Gandhi a huge hug during a
summit in Delhi in 1983. Mrs Gandhi, wrote a
biographer Pranay Gupte, “never an emotionally
demonstrative person, visibly recoiled from the
hug, managing only a faintly polite smile in the
interest of diplomatic niceties”.
Even Mr Modi was different in his early days as a
party functionary in Delhi. Biographer Nilanjan
Mukhopadhyay remembers him as a “warm and
affectionate man and his overall body language
touched a chord”. Much later, as the chief
minister of Gujarat, he could be a “bit cold and
remote” with his peers at meetings, “shaking
hands and maybe touching somebody on his
shoulders if he knew somebody particularly well”.
“But this is different, this hugging spree. He was
never so overt and aggressive in his public
display of affection,” says Mr Mukhopadhyay.
“His bear hugs are to convey the message that
he’s the representative of more than a billion
Indians. He’s saying ‘I have demographic clout’.
“And he’s sending the message back home that
‘I am being respected around the world, so
respect me at home and give me your votes’. It’s
a powerful piece of imagery.”
People see before they hear, and a leader’s body
language is a vital asset. The ritual of shaking
hands is all about restraint and respect. Hugs go
beyond the formal protocol – they show affection,
comradeship and spontaneity. Mr Modi, clearly,
believes that hugs fetch more dividends; they are
not about cuddly politics alone.
The body language is also tweaked to cater to
different audiences. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan
says Mr Modi has three core audiences: the
diaspora, foreign leaders and the Indian people.
“To the Indian masses, he speaks from a great
distance. To the diaspora, he speaks with a sense
of conviviality. To the world leaders, he changes
his body language, gives them big hugs,” says Dr
“The effort is too obvious. He’s trying to tell the
world that he’s an equal, a friend and he’s very
affectionate. Mr Modi is a performer. At the same
time, he has become a caricature of himself. This
worries me. I would like my leader to have more