Language of Statesmanship

When the Trumpets blare: Language of Statesmanship

The cookie crumbles when leaders attempt to add an impromptu embellishment to the script, that either elevates the written text, as in the case of Obama, or morphs into incoherence and digression, as in the case of Trump.

The dignity, solemnity and relevance of the moment was completely lost on President Donald Trump when he visited the Sabarmati Ashram and noted in the visitors’ book “To my great friend Prime Minister Modi – Thank you for this wonderful visit.” The thoughtless and inelegant omission of Mahatma Gandhi at the sanctum sanctorum of Gandhian sensibilities was attempted to be rectified at Rajghat the next day, but within the limits of Trump’s ability with language and expression.

At Rajghat, the difference in presidential language was glaring as Trump penned, “The American people stand strongly with a sovereign and wonderful India – the vision of the great Mahatma Gandhi – This is a tremendous honour,” as compared to the more mellifluous, sincere and personal noting of President Barack Obama in 2010, “What Martin Luther King Jr. said then remains true today. The spirit of Gandhi is very well alive in India today. And it remains a great gift to the world. May we always live in this spirit of love and peace - among all people.” The difference between Obama and Trump is personified by the unmistakable contrast of language, one that of a statesman, and the other of a political leader.

Presidents and prime ministers have official scriptwriters who craft messages in a manner and style that befits the preference, personality and aspirations of the leader concerned. While the essential ‘substance’ is usually defined by the leaders themselves, the wordsmithing and chiseling of the expression to ‘lift’ and sparkle the same is done by the backroom staff. Besides Obama’s personal touches, flourishes and obvious gravitas, his memorable speeches were fleshed out by Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan. Trump has Vince Haley and Ross Worthington as scriptwriters, who maintain an unusually low profile due to Trump’s make-believe attempts to posture his own eloquence, naturalness and felicity with words!

The cookie crumbles when these leaders attempt to add an impromptu embellishment to the script, that either elevates the written text, as in the case of Obama, or morphs into incoherence and digression, as in the case of Trump. The unscripted text exposes the reality and constraints of each leader.

Deliberations between the leaders of India and the US have historically entailed the finest minds in the world of politics, diplomacy and statesmanship. When the World War-2 hero Dwight  Eisenhower, or ‘Ike’, made the first visit by any President of the United States to India, he was met with men of immense calibre and erudition -- President Rajendra Prasad, Vice President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The philosopher and academician Radhakrishnan had profoundly invoked Eisenhower’s military background to state, “You are a great General; you know the vanity and foolishness of war to solve problems.”

Despite the limited global impact of India in the economic sense during the early years, India managed a disproportionately large global recognition due to the quality and tenor of its leadership that exemplified civilisational, moral and internationalist leadership. Despite India’s non-aligned fixation and perceived closeness with the Soviet ‘bloc’, Nehru’s natural charm and persona impressed John F Kennedy enough to override opposition from his own bureaucracy on matters concerning India. The subsequent Indira-Nixon, Carter-Morarji and Rajiv-Reagan engagements were more functional and lackluster, reflective of the individuals on both sides.

President Bill Clinton’s visit in 2000 was a landmark and definitive turning point in the Indo-US relationship, and the quality of leadership involved was obvious. The Indian side was represented by arguably the most sagacious Indian President ever, who let his work do the talking, President KR Narayanan, flanked by the brilliance of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Team Vajpayee was loaded with professional acumen in the form of the irrepressible foreign minister in Jaswant Singh and National Security Adviser Brijesh Mishra. Team Clinton was represented by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her deputy Strobe Talbot. The backdrop of the nuclear tests, Kargil and sanctions was palpable, but the collective wisdom ensured that the process of normalisation was initiated in earnest. Both Narayanan and Vajpayee were serious men of letters who did not require a written script to leave their mark, and both were known to add their ‘personal touch’, often to the discomfiture of the officialdom, and even to each other.

President Narayanan had been a former ambassador to the US, China, UK and Japan, besides being Vice President, Union minister, and Vice-Chancellor of JNU. He had authored books and was a four-time MP. His understanding of the delicacies of diplomacy, sobriety and nuances of international politics was unmatched. Narayanan’s speech in honour of President Clinton at the Rashtrapati Bhawan was a masterclass in gently calling out the American attitude when he said, “As an African statesman has observed to us, the fact that the world is a global village does not mean that it will be run by one village headman.” The message was not lost on Clinton, even as the dignity of the moment was upheld. Likewise, the sagacity of Vajpayee was such that he tasked his ‘political Hanuman’ in warrior-politician Jaswant Singh to carry the baton of engagement in his typical military manner and effectiveness. Reconciliation happened, history changed.

Later, the personal assertion of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in insisting on the India-US nuclear deal ensured the highest mutual respect between 7, Race Course Road (now Lok Kalyan Marg), and the White House. On Manmohan Singh, Obama had presciently commented, “When the Prime Minister speaks, the world listens.” Such was the accompanying language of Indo-US engagements.

Language is a reflection on statesmanship. Author David Lit notes on Obama, “What made Obama the adult in the room was the way he defined his priorities. Children strive only for pleasure; adults strive for fulfilment. Children demand adoration; adults earn respect. Children find worth in what they acquire; adults find worth in the responsibilities they bear.” And of Trump, he said, the “oldest person ever to become President. But he’s also our first child commander-in-chief.” Clearly, Obama was a statesman, Trump isn’t. 

(The writer is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)

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