Every incident in India, instead of a ‘whodunit’, has ‘will he speak’ as the leading question. ‘He’ here is a reference to the Prime Minister, who is called upon to ‘speak’ his heart and mind after any incident, event or programme. But we need to ask ourselves: Are we approaching it the right way?
While it is impossible, impractical and implausible to have ‘when can the Prime Minister speak’ guidelines, there are of course some considerations that one would expect the Prime Minister to look into before he makes a statement on any happening in any part of the nation. That the nation looks up to the Prime Minister’s word as a defining one on a subject makes it all the more reason for the Prime Minister to be extremely careful (not cautious) about what he speaks and when he speaks.
Those who expect the prime minister’s comment to come faster than a pizza reaches one’s home are cut off from reality. When the prime minister speaks he must do so with all the facts at his command and his words must cool the tempers of the entire nation — something that can’t be done instantly.
Now, to come to Narendra Modi, it is admirable that he has refrained from getting into a ‘fast food commentary’ on every issue. He has displayed calm and poise, urging the nation to look beyond issues that divide and instead focus on the large issues of development and all-round growth. In fact, the events in Patna in October 2013 illustrate that he kept saying so even in the midst of a major threat to his life.
A news item in this newspaper cited four key examples to prove Modi’s ‘silence’ on ‘violent ideological contests’. The statements by a Union minister were condemned by Modi but what is not mentioned is that the statement was made by the minister when Parliament was in session. Thus, any comment by the prime minister (or for that matter any minister or MP) beyond the floor of the house is a breach of privilege. With the permission to speak being the prerogative of the Chair, one is not quite sure who is being rebuked for the Prime Minister’s ‘late’ statement.
When the issue of Church attacks was at its peak, the prime minster did something that was most statesmanlike — he met Christian leaders on Christmas eve and interacted with a cross-section of community leaders in February in which he was firm that India’s diversity is India’s strength and that no force can tamper with India’s unity. In any case, a large number of Church attacks were proven to be cases of theft, something that happens in temples and other places of worship as well. (Statistical records show such cases occurring more in temples, in fact.)
In the same month, the prime minister again spoke in Parliament, to which Christian academic Valson Thampu wrote, “Last night I slept well. Because of you. I want to thank you for what you said in Parliament. And the way you said it … every word was in the right place.”
When young Rohith Vemula was killed, some leaders brazenly entered the campus to vitiate the atmosphere further. Even before the family could come to terms with the grief of losing a young son, the flames of politics shot up. Before the FIR, the verdicts were out in the studios, editorials and by political leaders. I am not sure if we want knee-jerk political statements even from the prime minister. What we want is a nuanced statement expressing grief, which was duly done in the most dignified manner at a programme in Lucknow.
What we also forget is that law and order is a state subject. It is the duty of the state government to maintain calm. Do statements by the prime minister help when a state administration is busy restoring calm? Moreover, ill-timed comments by anybody that harm the federal structure of India are clearly unadvisable.
It is worth noting that outrage and anger are very selective. Some lives are clearly more equal than others. Did the regular ‘Why is Modi silent’ askers question why Modi is silent when Malda is burning? When an RSS worker was mercilessly killed in Kerala, where was the ‘Can Modi speak’ lot? Where was the outrage for Modi to speak when the vice-president of the Bihar BJP was mercilessly killed? Was Modi’s silence used to attack him when the father of the candidate against Lalu Prasad’s son was killed? When a Prashanth Poojary is killed in Karnataka, nobody laments Modi’s silence. These designs clearly expose how outrage is not only selective but also mischievous.
On several occasions, matters where we want fast food commentary are matters that are sub-judice. In such times, do we want the highest executive office in the country to say something that influences the judicial process? Do we want a situation where the words of the prime minister colour the judicial outcome in a case? I am not sure.
It is all right to want the prime minister to speak but it is not in order to expect the prime minister to do so at an individual’s whims and fancies. Let the hatred for Narendra Modi not affect our perspective on how we treat institutions.
Ideological disagreements, debates and discussions have existed for centuries. The UPA years showed us what real silence is, when the prime minister was too powerless to speak and the UPA chairperson was heavily guided by politics and symbolism. Or where Twitter handles were shamelessly blocked just because the Government felt rattled. Another previous Congress government, when it spoke, trampled over the Constitution in 1975. Thankfully that is history…
(Anirban Ganguly is director of the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation and member of Policy Research Department of the BJP. The views expressed are personal)