The word in the BJP is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is angry. We are told that at two consecutive meetings of the party’s MPs, Modi let his displeasure be known to the motor-mouth MPs who have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Privately, BJP leaders say that the RSS and affiliate organisations of the larger Hindutva ‘parivar’ have also been told to rein in those who may think that inflammatory remarks are the shortest route to success in the ‘Sangh’.
But these reprimands notwithstanding, the truth is that for the first time since the Modi government took charge, its rabble rousers have ensured it is not in control of its own political messaging. Calls for (re)conversions, controversial circulars on Christmas and outlandish and offensive outbursts of support for the Mahatma’s assassin have all combined to make the cacophony drown out a previously cogent communication policy.
Television assertions from high-profile and irrepressible BJP leaders like Subramanian Swamy that Hindutva was always part of the PM’s agenda have further diffused the development and good governance slogans that the party won the elections on. That Modi has chosen — so far — to not accept the Opposition’s demand for a direct intervention in the Rajya Sabha has added a film of fog to the central message his government wants to convey this winter.
That the PM has a canny instinct for communication and, unlike his predecessor, is also a masterful orator makes the present stand-off even more ironic. One of the key reasons for the electoral success of the BJP has been its intuitive understanding that in an age of hyper-information and shrinking attention spans, silence is the language of political obituaries. Both as candidate and PM, Modi has often by-passed the traditional media to talk directly to his constituents in a communication strategy that has worked very well for his government thus far. But faced now with a situation where the script is not entirely his own, the PM’s main worry is not a united Opposition, but the extremist fringe within, which has re-written the headlines and blurred the image of his government.
That he did publicly condemn the abusive communal rant by one of his ministers — Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti — was less a result of effective pressure by the Opposition and more to do with the piquant circumstances forced on his government by his own colleagues. For a PM known to have cracked the whip and pushed absconding officials off the golf greens and into their offices, now may be precisely the time to be the authoritarian party leader he has often been described as.
Modi will not find it difficult to turn the page on these recent controversies if he does make a categorical and renewed commitment to ‘vikas’ being the only mantra his government will swear by. In the absence of any individual challenger in the Opposition, Modi still has the force of personality on his side.
Within the Congress, Rahul Gandhi especially remains in parliamentary hibernation. The image of him wearing a black-band across his mouth to oppose the foul-mouthed utterances of Jyoti came across less as potent protest and more as self-parody because Rahul never speaks in Parliament. In his 10-year tenure as a legislator, you can count on one hand the number of times the Congress vice-president has taken part in a debate or even posed a question.
The Opposition’s stalling of key Bills can only go so far and no further before public patience runs out. With economic recovery being the cornerstone of public expectations, the government is also unlikely to come in for any major criticism if it takes the ordinance route for pending financial business like the insurance Bill or the Goods and Services Tax Bill (GST). But the government needs to remember that at least till 2016 when a third of the members in the Upper House will retire, the BJP will continue to remain in a vulnerable minority in the House. In other words, it can hardly afford to hand over issues to the Opposition on a decorative platter as it has done in recent weeks.
Among critics of the government, there are the conspiracy theorists who argue that the ‘fringe’ is actually propped by the ‘centre’ as part of some sort of devious good-cop, bad-cop strategy. But it is difficult to believe that there are any political gains for the PM personally if he does not control the radicals on the right. If it is indeed aspirational India that gave a thumbs up to a strong leadership and economic resurgence in voting the BJP to power, then for its own sake, manufactured controversies around religion and identity need to be relegated firmly to the periphery. And statements of bigotry need to be put down a lot more firmly than they have been so far. In the last weeks the simmering discontent of a number of avowed Modi admirers underlines the fact that this is what his supporters expect as well.
For a PM who has managed to more than revive the India story on the global stage, it is time to take charge on the home front. Taking a stand in Parliament will be one step in this direction. If Modi is the message, as was evident in the 2014 campaign, the messaging of his government needs to stop being mixed.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal