The world needs more Modi-style male bonding diplomacy
Yonden Lhatoo looks at the state and significance of male-to-male physical contact between world leaders, and takes his hat off to India’s prime minister
If you’ve ever lived or travelled in India, you’ll have noticed that it’s quite common for young men to walk hand in hand.
Not only that, they interlace fingers, or grasp each other’s pinkies, and swing their arms in wide arcs, like schoolgirls off to a picnic, minus the skipping.
There are other variations, such as walking around leaning heavily on each other’s shoulder, with heads touching sometimes, or with arms wrapped around each other’s waists in a semi-embrace.
No, it doesn’t mean they’re gay couples, even if it appears so to those of us who have adopted or were brought up with Western heteronormative social mores. And the homophobes need not snigger.
In a country that once gave us the Kama Sutra but is now highly conservative, especially over women, male-to-male public displays of affection can be more acceptable than male-to-female.
This is not a phenomenon unique to India – it’s prevalent in some other Asian, Middle Eastern and European countries, too.
But what’s special about India, on another level, is that it now has a prime minister who has exported this brand of bromance to the international arena, where he uses it as part of his charm offensive in engaging world leaders. And I’m not making fun of him here; I think it’s great.
Watch Narendra Modi during his visit earlier this month to St Petersburg, where he took a walk in the park, hand in hand, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The “pre-wedding photoshoot” met with a lot of amusement on the internet and in the mass media, but think about it: this is the toughest leader that a steadily rising India has produced in a while connecting on a personal level with big, bad Russia’s macho, macho man.
When world leaders who wield their level of power and influence hit it off like that, isn’t that generally a good thing for both their countries? And if they’re comfortable and confident enough in their masculinity to be supremely unconscious of the cameras capturing their candid moments, what’s the problem?
It was a problem for many Americans back in 2005 when they saw their president, George W. Bush, holding hands with then crown prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. That kinda thing doesn’t go down well in Texas, y’know.
Then, of course, there’s Donald Trump. Men will understand this: there’s always this one guy from back in high school who never grew up and gave up the old, over-strong handshake to demonstrate his strength, virility or whatever.
Watch: Trump-Macron handshake under the microscope
Let’s keep in mind that this kind of college-boy rutting is not trivial or inconsequential any more when very powerful men who can decide the fates of millions are doing it. Trump has made it a new mainstay of interaction with world leaders, a recent example being his high-profile handshaking contest with French President Emmanuel Macron, who made it clear he took their showdown seriously.
When covering the Apec summit in New Zealand back in 2000, I watched former president Jiang Zemin ( 江澤民 ) rub noses with a Maori elder in a traditional greeting ceremony. It was a sight.
But that was not a patch on 2014, when Modi received President Xi Jinping (習近平) in his home state of Gujarat. The two of them sat on a swing and smiled at each other for the cameras. Think about it: Modi got the leader of China to sit on a swing with him in the garden. Now that’s impressive.
I’m not saying China and India are now Best Friends Forever as a result – in fact, ties may have deteriorated since that special Sino-Indian garden scene, but we could use some more swinging, hugging and, yes, male-to-male hand-holding to hopefully make this a better world for all.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post