Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not capable of flying under the radar. Even though the storied hall in which the United Nations General Assembly meets was only half full when he addressed it on Saturday, he nevertheless delivered a speech that was a notable departure from those of previous Indian prime ministers. (His own departure from stage was notable – many observers, including ex-Newsweek editor Tunku Varadarajan, noted that the General Assembly’s co-chairs seemed to take exception to the lack of courtesy inherent in departing abruptly, without the usual thanks.)
There was no direct attack on Pakistan, for example: instead, the PM took the high road, and clearly signposted it as being the high road. “Raising issues in this forum,” said Modi, “is not the way to make progress towards resolving issues between our two countries.” Of course, he then went on to talk about terrorism in a section clearly directed at Pakistan, so the high road clearly only takes you so far.
What is notable is that the PM seems to have diverted from his prepared text in order to make the remarks about Pakistan. The Press Information Bureau’s report says: “He [meaning the prime minister] condemned the use of terms such as ‘good terrorism’ and ‘bad terrorism’ and said some countries were still harbouring terrorists and using terrorism as an instrument of state policy.” But the English text of his speech that was released had no such mention.
There was also a clear defence of his government’s scuttling of multilateral trade negotiations. Modi said that “genuine international partnership” would mean that “when we craft agreements on international trade, we accommodate each other’s concerns and interests”.
UN General Assembly speeches are rarely the place where giant shifts in policy are laid out. They are more often than not locations for the statement of existing policy positions. It is rare to see showmanship of the sort exhibited by Hugo Chavez – who spoke of a “smell of sulphur” at the podium, because the “devil” George W Bush had given a speech there, or like that of Binyamin Netanyahu, who drew a much-mocked cartoon of an Iranian nuclear bomb during his speech.
But Narendra Modi is who he is, even when addressing the United Nations. The determinedly clever one-liners were there – “Energy not consumed is the cleanest energy”, for example. There was the acronyms and English-language wordplay – the UN, he said, was “G-All”, as compared to the G-20 or the G-8.
And there was the sudden advent of Hinduism-inflected spirituality: “For us in India, respect for nature is an integral part of spiritualism.” Many diplomats will be wondering whether the prime minister of India, a crucial participant in climate-change negotiations, was actually serious when he told the world’s assembled representatives that yoga, through “creating consciousness” and lifestyle changes, could help deal with climate change. The answer: yes he was. The three neighbourhood leaders – from Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh – who met him after the speech were asked their opinion on an International Yoga Day and were, according to the state media sources accompanying the PM, enthusiastic. Naturally – nothing says “serious about climate change” like “International Yoga Day”.