In 2017, United States President Donald Trump’s signature “alpha” handshake with other public officials became a target of much media scrutiny and the butt of late-night comedy punchlines.
CNN provides a compendium of the handshakes, taking in his 19-second encounter with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the vigorous greeting of Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch and Vice President Mike Pence:
The response of other world leaders has even come to be seen as a kind of gauge of their character; in February 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s muscular effort was labelled “the biggest display of dominance in the history of Canada.” Three months later, newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron said the firm grip he offered his American counterpart was “not innocent”, and labelled it “a moment of truth.”
When Trump hosted India’s prime minister Narendra Modi at the White House in June 2017, parts of the international news media set about what has become a ritual surrounding a ritual — analysis of Trump’s physical encounter with another world leader. During a press conference in the White House Rose Garden on 26 June 2017, Modi initiated a firm handshake with Trump, followed by a warm hug, and then a pat on the hand for good measure (video starts at 19:23):
Newsweek reported that Modi “evaded” Trump’s handshake with a hug, adding:
U.S. President Donald Trump is notorious for his bone-crunching power handshake, during which he forcefully yanks his counterpart’s arm in a bid to hammer home his ‘alpha-male’ supremacy.
But in his visit to the White House Monday Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi neatly sidestepped the challenge, swooping in for two bear hugs with the president during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden.
As Trump stepped forward, Modi wrapped his arms around the president’s midsection, ending the embrace with a brief handshake before moving back to his lectern. After concluding his remarks, Modi again went in for a hug with Trump, this time resting his head on the president’s shoulder.
The UK’s Daily Mirror reported that Trump’s “awkward” handshake had evolved into an “even more cringeworthy” hug, claiming:
As they emerged from the White House, they said their goodbyes with a formal handshake — before Modi went in for a full-on HUG. The Indian PM’s embrace appeared to catch Trump off-guard and he responded with an hilarious ‘air hug’, his arms failing to make contact.
And yet, the same report includes photos that clearly show Trump embracing Modi and holding him with both hands.
What is most interesting about this coverage is the claim that Modi’s embrace of Trump was in some way unusual, or especially loaded with symbolism — for example, Newsweek’s claim that Modi had “evaded” Trump’s handshake and “neatly sidestepped the challenge.” In fact, Narendra Modi is famous for his hugs, and greets many world leaders and dignitaries with a firm handshake and warm embrace, often followed by a double-handed handshake or pat on the hand.
Here’s Modi greeting then-President Barack Obama in January 2015, with a handshake, hug, and pat on the hand (starts 3:01):
In April 2016, Modi greeted then-French President Francois Hollande with a handshake and a hug:
On 3 June 2017, Modi travelled to Paris and met with newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron. Once again, the two men shared a long handshake and a hug.
In August 2014, Modi greeted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with, yet again, a handshake, a hug, and a pat on the hand. Three months later, the Indian Prime Minister greeted his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott with, naturally, a handshake and a hug.
The point should be abundantly clear — Narendra Modi is a hugger. There is absolutely nothing about his June 2017 greeting of Donald Trump that can reasonably be regarded as unusual, especially symbolic, or indicative of anything other than an image-conscious politician doing what he normally does in front of the assembled world news media.