Even if he has earned the ire and suspicion of his own colleagues, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor is right in arguing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, so far, been distinctly different from Modi the principal challenger in a bitterly fought election. In fact since the moment of his resounding victory he has made a distinct and swift shift in both language and approach. This columnist has argued that the new prime minister is all set to use the element of surprise as a key weapon in his armoury. His first set of decisions (whether it was inviting Saarc heads of government, including Pakistan, to his swearing-in, tweeting personal congratulations to political adversaries to indicate that his days of abrasiveness are consigned to the past or spending his first afternoon in office at the residence of former PM Manmohan Singh) have taken aback both his staunchest advocates and fiercest opponents. Having re-written the rules of politics, with a presidential campaign centred on his own personality, as prime minister, Modi can be expected to recast his own image. That process has already begun.
Some aspects of his campaign however will spill over into his governance style as well, primarily the understanding that in an age of hyper-information, communication is power. That the prime minister’s new website was up and running a few seconds after he was formally sworn-in was an early indication that this is a regime that will focus on getting its messaging right. This will also be a Prime Minister who converses directly with the citizenry. I wouldn’t be surprised if American style State of the Union national addresses became the norm in India under Modi. Unlike the exasperating silence of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, it’s quite clear that we will hear from Prime Minister Modi often and directly, whether via social media or on television.
Given the emphasis on effective communication as well as the clear break from the abrasiveness and aggression of the election campaign, the otherwise articulate prime minister’s silence on some issues has certainly been perplexing. In recent days, the twitter-friendly prime minister has shared many things with us — Nawaz Sharif’s gift for his mother, the prime minister’s meeting with all secretaries, his views on World Environment Day and World No Tobacco Day, his condolences for Gopinath Munde and his congratulations to Sumitra Mahajan. Of course this is welcome; we like having a vocal, talkative prime minister.
But this has also been a time for both shock and horror, as gut-wrenching news has come in from two different states — Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. First, the two young Dalit sisters, still in their teens, gang-raped and then strangulated by hanging them from a mango tree — a tree that has come to symbolise not shelter, but shame. A murder that was facilitated by sexual violence, caste bias, police complicity and the lawlessness that has come to be typical of UP under Akhilesh Yadav. It’s true and utterly tragic that the Badaun horror has not led to the kind of mass protests that turned out to be a political game-changer in the aftermath of the December 16 gang-rape two years ago. But just because class biases tend to steer our collective outrage (or the absence of it) should not mean that we should not hear from our prime minister on this. Remember how we pilloried Manmohan Singh for his silence and attacked Rahul Gandhi for his absence back then after the Delhi rape? Yes, the primary responsibility for Badaun is that of the government of Uttar Pradesh and Akhilesh Yadav’s brazen defiance has dented his already collapsing frame. Yet, since the PM has made talking to us a key characteristic of his political persona, we would have expected him to offer us his opinion, his anger, or his assurances on the gruesome murder and rape of these two young girls.
What’s happened in Pune is in some ways even more spine-chilling. Morphed online photographs of Bal Thackeray and Chhatrapati Shivaji resulted in communal friction and street protests in the city. Soon after, Mohsin Mohammed Sadique Shaikh — a computer engineer still in his twenties and in no ways connected to the circulation of these photographs — was beaten to death for being Muslim. His friend, Riyaz, said they were returning from offering prayers at the local mosque when Mohsin was singled out and targeted because he was wearing a skull cap.
Police say the suspects behind this brutality — Mohsin was thrashed with sticks — are members of an ultra-Right-wing group called the Hindu Rashtra Sena. Its supporters have since been accused of exchanging congratulatory text messages about the murder of this young man, describing it as the successful falling of a ‘first wicket’. The same group was also seen to be behind the assassination of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar.
Maharashtra is governed by a Congress-NCP government and its role as well that of the Pune Police will come under fierce scrutiny. But unjustifiable comments were also attributed to the Pune MP, Anil Shirole from the BJP who is quoted as saying “what happened on Facebook was very painful. Some amount of repercussion was natural.” Later Shirole insisted he’d been misunderstood; he said the repercussion he meant was the protest and damage to public property, not the murderous assault.
But as we confront the shame of the Pune murder — every such assault is an affront to our pluralism — we would have certainly expected the prime minister to make an unequivocal public condemnation of Mohsin’s murder. Modi has always argued that the Constitution is his “holy book” and that law is equal for all faiths. Mohsin’s murder is the one moment, where a communicative PM cannot and must not remain either silent or ambiguous.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.)