Indians fantasise about being vishwaguru — the guru to the world — all the time. With Coronavirus, we got one step closer to that fantasy. Namaste is in, handshakes and hugs are out. German Chancellor Angela Merkel learnt that when her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer refused to shake hands with her. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have to stop hugging too when he meets global leaders now.
But he mustn’t worry because India has got a response, which is respectful and creates a safe distance – namaste. It is the perfect greeting for germophobes too – from US President Donald Trump to George W. Bush. Trump even called handshake a ‘barbaric’ practice. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recalls how Trump kept a giant bottle of hand-sanitiser on the table when she went to interview him. Perhaps, namaste can help Modi find another common cause with his “true friend” Trump.
All this signals a great opportunity for the over-worked staff at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) – the architects and enforcers of New Delhi’s cultural diplomacy.
After Gandhi and yoga, namaste must become India’s next main export. In the age of pandemics and novel coronaviruses, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Diplomatic virtues of namaste
The handshake began in the 5th century B.C. Greece. It was a declaration of peace, to demonstrate that neither person was carrying or holding a weapon. So, namaste can become the new weapons-free gesture.
The Guardian chose to call it ‘The End of Handshake’, asking readers to give up handshakes, hugs, high-fives and cheek kisses. It goes on to provide the Chinese, Arab alternatives.
But Twitter users in India are already offering namaste as the best solution.
And with China, France, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Romania, Poland, Iran and the UAE warning against handshakes, even as the world questions India’s commitment to its long tradition of pacifism, a global campaign to promote the virtues of namaste could help assuage the fears of India’s critics.
The ICCR could name the campaign ‘Namaste: Being courteous in times of corona’.
Move over Yoga, we got Namaste
For decades Indian governments tended to pride themselves on their country’s far-reaching soft-power. Whether it was Amitabh Bachchan’s fan-club in Moscow or the oil-soaked oft-bland samosas in downtown New York City – India’s cultural influence was palpable even before the Indian economic wonder was felt across the globe.
Oh, and if Bachchan and samosas weren’t enough, we always had Gandhi.
After coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made Indian cultural diplomacy all about yoga. But with the recent global backlash against the crisis in Kashmir and the anti-CAA protests, maybe the yoga-centric cultural diplomacy is struggling to save India’s image.
With coronavirus knocking on our doorstep, New Delhi needs a new game – and there is nothing better than our millennia-old namaste.
Who knows, this could be India’s vital scientific contribution to the fight against the lethal coronavirus.