Public memory in India tends to be woefully short-lived. Political buffs may, however, recall an incident during the Gujarat assembly election campaign of 2007 when, during the course of a TV interview aboard the campaign bus, chief minister Narendra Modi was asked a question about the carping noises made by his former mentor Keshubhai Patel. Modi heard the question and stared impassively into nothing. The reporter repeated the question and Modi sat coldly stone-faced and expressionless. There was a long, awkward pause after which the flustered reporter moved to the next question.
Prime Minister Modi is not usually prone to long pauses, unlike, say, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. When he does indeed opt for stony silence, it isn’t because his mind is feverishly searching for that devastating one-liner: His silences are premeditated and born of calculation.
Ever since the controversy surrounding former cricket czar Lalit Modi’s relationships with Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje hit the TV screens three weeks ago, the prime minister has been under pressure from both the media and the Opposition to comment. Despite incensed anchors coming precariously close to bursting a blood vessel and the Congress’ Jairam Ramesh taunting him as “Swami Maunananda”, he has chosen to not speak on the issue. He also appears to have also succeeded in ensuring that no one in his council of ministers has spoken a single word more than strictly necessary. The task of explaining or defending has been left to lesser BJP functionaries, with mixed results.
Modi has been lucky that the flood of Lalit Modi emails came under scrutiny during the summer break of Parliament. Had the storm erupted during the monsoon session beginning July 21, the prime minister would no doubt have been obliged to speak, even before the attacking side had exhausted its ammunition. Now, when he speaks in Parliament — as he will be obliged to — it will, presumably, follow the necessary political fine-tuning. The contours of the government’s defence shield are as yet unknown but it may not be rash to hazard one guess: Every effort will be made to delink the crisis management strategies from the controversy itself. The calculated silence that Modi maintained on Keshubhai’s almost-rebellion eight years ago may well be replicated, at least in essence.
A possible recourse to symbolism to address a political problem may offend the sensibilities of those attuned to the more direct ways of western democracies. However, apart from the grim reality of a boisterous parliamentary culture where the arguments have little place, Modi is keenly aware that any forthright prime ministerial intervention is a double-edged sword. While it has the virtue of taking the bull by its horns, there is the corresponding danger of the government losing its grip on the larger political narrative.
This is something that Modi has always sought to avoid. In Gujarat, he faced a sustained storm over his supposed culpability in the 2002 riots. However, while his friends and political associates confronted a viscerally hostile media with counter-arguments, the man himself refused all comments on the subject, particularly after winning the 2002 election. He even walked out of a TV interview on being pestered with questions on the riots. There was method in his obduracy: He wouldn’t allow the media and his opponents to divert attention from his set themes of Gujarati asmita and economic development.
It is this trait that has been on display over the past three weeks. Despite the sustained provocation and the adverse headlines, Modi has stuck to a script over which he has complete control. Therefore, World Yoga Day was all about India’s cultural inheritance and soft power; the Mann ki Baat radio address was devoted to the empowerment of women and the dignity of the girl child; and the Digital India Week speech was centred on securing a “digital push” and M-governance.
During his ongoing eight-day visit of Central Asian countries, his gaze will be firmly on India’s footprint in the region, energy security and terrorism.
Undeniably, the political traction from this energetic pursuit of themes linked to national pride, social reform, technological excellence and foreign policy may well be somewhat diminished by the Lalit Modi-linked controversies — the powerful social message of the Mann ki Baat broadcast suffered a transmission loss thanks to the media determination to bring the prime minister down a notch or two. But Union finance minister Arun Jaitley wasn’t necessarily speaking in a personal capacity when he told reporters on Thursday that, “Some people may be of relevance to television channels; they have no relevance to governance as far as the Government of India is concerned.” Jaitley’s comments may appear uncharacteristically petulant, but compared to the feverish display of political evangelism on TV screens they seem a model of understated restraint.
Modi’s unbending reluctance to either respond or succumb to a magnificent display of political outrage — some real, others contrived — carries a measure of political risk for both him and the BJP. Having become accustomed to prime ministers who combined geniality with a suppleness of political will, many in the political class view Modi as an aberration. In his refusal to buy a short-term peace that could lead to the loss of political momentum, he is certainly different from anything India has seen for a long time.
There are ethical questions that the Lalit Modi controversy has raised. The prime minister will probably address these in a time and manner of his own choosing.
For the moment he has asked a question that many leaders in his place have been afraid to pose: Who governs India? The elected government or a combine of the self-anointed and blackmailer?
The answer will have a bearing on the future course of politics.
Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator. The views expressed are personal.