India in English

Samanth Subramanian looks at India’s complex relationship with the English language

Samanth Subramanian

In the days since the decisive victory of Narendra Modi and his conservative Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s national election, many Indian commentators have perceived a turning point in Indian politics. Modi’s critics sense, in his sweeping mandate, an ominous revival of Hindu nationalism; his supporters maintain that he won because of his robust economic record in Gujarat, where he was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014. Few on either side, though, dispute that Modi’s political rise signals, in part, a rejection by voters of India’s traditional political elite.

Modi is the consummate self-made man; behind him lie a childhood spent helping his father sell tea at a railway station, university degrees earned through part-time courses, and a career spent climbing laboriously up the ladder of state politics in Gujarat. In speech, he rarely departs from Hindi and Gujarati; his English is serviceable but never elegant. During the campaign, a swaggering rival, Mani Shankar Aiyar—an entrenched member of the Congress Party who speaks a plummy, refined English—dismissed Modi as a chaiwallah. But it was Aiyar who lost his parliamentary seat, while Modi went on to become Prime Minister.


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