The PM is cultivating a sage-like detachment from everyday politics. This is politically risky when Dalits and Muslims both need empathy and succour. His model of communication needs to change.
It is difficult to anticipate what form of internal unrest will finally compel Prime Minister Narendra Modi to directly comment on political developments in the country.
The last couple of weeks has offered plenty opportunity for him to do so. 44 civilians have been shot dead by security forces in Kashmir since July 9. Over 2,100 others have been injured and many, including children, blinded by pellets. Contrast Modi’s silence on the bloodshed with President Barack Obama who makes it a point to respond to every major incident involving the shooting of black civilians by police in the US.
There have been other disturbing developments. Four Dalits were publicly flogged by cow protection activists at Una in Gujarat for allegedly skinning a dead cow. The government waited for an entire week – till protests erupted – to arrest some of the accused. Adding to that a BJP leader compared Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati to a prostitute setting off protests in UP. PM Modi has yet to comment on these.
It’s not that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not responded to these events. Home minister Rajnath Singh and other leaders have reacted in Parliament and party spokespersons have been debating the issues on television.
But there seems to be a concerted attempt by the BJP to insulate Modi from these events – to keep the PM above the fray and humdrum of everyday politics.
The pattern seems to be that Modi himself will not speak on grim matters but will spell out his views through ministers or officials. So Jitendra Singh, minister of state at the PMO, emerges from a high-level meeting and says the PM has “appealed for calm”. The Press of Trust of India reports subsequently that the PM was unhappy about the media coverage of Kashmir. Rajnath Singh tells Parliament that the PM is very much pained about Kashmir’s suffering and that Modi was concerned enough to convene a meeting within hours of arriving Africa, battling jetlag. Singh will also convey that the PM was “very upset” about the flogging of Dalits in Gujarat.
In effect, the PM has settled into model of communication where he tweets mostly good news (and outrage on terrorism), lists achievements and dishes out homilies on radio shows, have the odd email and TV interview that have no scope for tough follow-up questions, solicit votes in election rallies but retreat into a hallowed space and let others do the fire-fighting when the going gets tough.
This has a particular logic to it. It elevates the PM to a plane that is above political combat; it underlines the impression that he has no peer in India’s political life and portrays him as a sort of a sarsangchalak of the formal political system (quite apart from the one in Nagpur). It’s no wonder that Cabinet ministers refer to him in reverential tones and convey edicts from his sanctum sanctorum. This is a useful veneer to cultivate since Arvind Kejriwal is doing his best to ‘normalise’ Modi by directly attacking him from time to time. The PM’s refusal to engage deprives Kejriwal of a target and potentially exhausts the latter’s unidirectional combat.
This strategy worked fine and suited the BJP when the focus was on stigmatising and targeting Muslims and urban liberals. Modi’s silence over his party colleagues targeting JNU and his tolerance of inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims from those like Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj and Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti rallied the nationalist section of the middle class in UP and other cities.
But Dalit disaffection is a different matter altogether. The BJP has already alienated Muslims across the country; it cannot afford to unite Dalit opinion against it as well. Dalits comprise 20.7% of UP’s population and they make a formidable force when aligned with Muslims who account for 18% in the state. The BJP has relied on splitting the Dalit vote to defeat Mayawati, but this public flogging of youth at the behest of cow protection activists can consolidate opinion among all Dalits that the BJP is instinctively anti-Dalit.
And this is where Modi’s cultivated detachment becomes a liability. His exuberant foreign visits, his blithely going about official routines (like inaugurating a Petrapole integrated check post with Bangladesh via video conference on Thursday) while Dalits nationwide are incensed over the treatment meted out to them will certainly rankle. It is worth noting that the BJP cannot take the support of the ‘upper castes’ for granted once the Dalit-Muslim consolidation is discernible.
The PM may see no political gain from personally comforting Kashmiris. But there will be a huge price to pay if there is no firm action on SC/ST Act violations and consistent (not one-off) messaging about Dalits.
For a party with a difference, atrocities against Dalits should not be a matter of electoral instrumentality but of justice being upheld and delivered.
The views expressed are personal.
The author tweets as @SushilAaron