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Bye-bye handshake, hello high-five

- Obama clued in to street style, Modi has a long way to go
US President Obama fist-bumps a cashier at a Texas restaurant

July 26: Some people rub noses, others touch shoulders or their elders’ feet and, depending where you are in Europe, plenty make do with one, two or three kisses.

But politicians everywhere have tended to greet each other and the electorate with the tried and tested handshake, or sometimes just a nod of the head or a folding of the hands.

Now, though, many of our statesmen are going all “street”.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, attempted a high-five (or was it a throttle?) when he met British Prime Minister David Cameron recently. Barack Obama has gone back to the fist-bump that took him to the White House.

On a visit to a barbecue restaurant in Austin, Texas, the American President joked with an employee and then touched fists, which got his supporters raving again about how this was a different sort of President, unburdened by the formality of his predecessors.

Prime Minister Modi walks towards Brazil President Dilma Rousseff with an outstretched hand. File pictures

His critics seized upon it as another example of how, well, this was a different sort of President, lacking in dignity and decorum. At least, it’s not as naff as the time he took a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

India’s strait-laced politicians, whose stock-in-trade is a stiff namaste, are unlikely to be caught at something so offbeat, though.

The farthest off the beaten track one remembers an Indian Prime Minister veering is Inder Kumar Gujral warmly hugging his Pakistani counterpart and fellow Punjabi Nawaz Sharif in the late ’90s, prompting an astonished subcontinent to coin the phrase “jhappi-pappi” (hug and kisses) diplomacy. The pappi, of course, was strictly figurative.

Perhaps it’s something to do with Sharif: he earned a tentative half-embrace in May from even the non-touchy-feely Narendra Modi who, at least with domestic audiences, usually prefers folded palms or a wave of the hand to a handshake.

Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj occasionally allows herself a tight squeeze on the arm when she meets another woman politician. Rahul Gandhi is said to be so reserved that he even avoids posing for photos.

Ironically, fist bumps can also shield a politician from too much contact. During the “swine flu” pandemic in 2009, one academic suggested the fist-bump should replace the handshake because it would help reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.

Admirers of the fist-bump claim it is a mark of equality. Unlike with a handshake, there is no trial of strength. Some politicians like to put rivals in their place with a crushing grip. A tap of fists shows that the participants are on equal terms.

Equality, though, is farthest from everyone’s minds at interactions between India’s leaders and the led. What most netas look forward to is having their feet touched --- unless it is Tamil Nadu’s Amma dispensing blessings to one of her ministers lying flat on the ground before her.

When Rahul Gandhi and Modi started discouraging feet-touching, their party workers were mortified at the thumbs-down to a centuries-old convention.

Fist-bumps too have been around for decades. One form of it was used from the 19th century as a way for boxers to greet in the middle of the ring before a bout --- something not entirely dissimilar to political greetings.

Biker gangs in post-war America would also touch gloved fists at traffic lights, while it has become a popular way for batsmen to celebrate a good stroke or innings in cricket.

Indians probably saw the high-five and the fist-bump first from touring West Indian cricketers in the 1980s.

The fist-bump is “a form of celebration”, believes Harry Witchel, an expert in body language and non-verbal communication.

“In California in the 1970s, it was youth-culturish. It expresses connection and informality. You might bump fists to express warmth, breaking that barrier of contact without getting too close. A hug would be warm, but maybe not appropriate.”

David McNeill, of the University of Chicago, said the gesture came from African-American street culture.

“It could be a modification of the open-hand slap,” he said. “There has always been an informal gesture culture.”

However, the fist-bump may not stand the test of time. “What strikes me about ‘pop culture’ gestures is their arbitrariness,” McNeill said.

“They are brands rather than authentic gestures. I don’t think they have lasting power, unlike the notorious middle finger, which has been used as an insult since the Romans.”

Fist-bumps, however, have long been part of the Obama armoury. When he claimed the Democratic nomination during the 2008 presidential campaign, he knocked knuckles with wife Michelle in a gesture that The Washington Post said “gave a big bump to his authenticity”, especially with black voters.

He also patted her bottom, although the President happily resists the urge to do that to voters.

The Times, London, with additional reporting by our Delhi bureau


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