For the first time since the 'Mann Ki Baat' radio show began, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence spoke louder than his natural conversational monologue on Sunday. He stressed key themes which have become a mark of his public engagement, but by sidestepping key contemporary controversies, Modi left himself open to the charge that he was abdicating his responsibility.
Two patterns in Modi’s political communication are clear.
First, ever since his August 15 speech, the PM’s public speeches have focused on the role and responsibility of the citizens in tackling social issues. This is a departure for often; earlier those at the helm of the government focused exclusively on the role of the state.
From encouraging citizens to work towards cleanliness to making them a part of a campaign to encourage tourism on social media, Modi places the responsibility back on the society. He asks people to take selfies with daughters and requests brothers to gift insurance schemes to sisters on Rakshabandhan.
Whether this is only the politics of symbolism through the use of technology, social media and images, or whether it is sufficient to deal with the deep structural issues facing Indian society, or whether there is an institutional follow-up on citizen engagement, is open to question.
At the same time, Modi is also focused on boosting the legitimacy of the state apparatus and his own reputation as a leader who can implement and deliver. Here, he is speaking to the millions of government servants who work at different levels of the Indian state, with limited to low motivation -- citizens who are deeply cynical about the state’s capacity and intent to deliver services.
On Sunday, the PM spoke about how the state can deliver. He cited the role of the Ministry of Ayush in organising the Yoga day. He talked about the ability of the government to evacuate citizens from Yemen and deliver assistance to Nepal. He stressed measures to enhance financial inclusion and even claimed that -- in accordance with his promise last Independence Day -- most schools now have toilets. Whether this is true and whether there are actual administrative reforms that have enhanced the state’s capacity in the past year are not clear yet.
But this edition of 'Mann Ki Baat' will stand out not for what Modi said, but for what he did not say. At a time when the public sphere is rocked by allegations of impropriety, corruption, fraud and deep conflict of interest issues against his ministers and party leaders, the PM has chosen to remain silent.
The silence is particularly striking because the radio show does not happen in a vacuum. It is also the one platform where Modi communicates directly, thus going beyond the 140 character limit set by Twitter. In the past, Modi, on these shows, has spoken about what is presentand what is dominating the news often. He has responded to a controversy over the black money issue by making a categorical commitment and he has taken pride in India’s role in Nepal days after a massive earthquake. He spoke about the Yoga day which happened last week and the monsoon.
But he chose to ignore the one issue where citizens, media and the political opposition have demanded an answer. Something similar had happened when Hindutva belligerence had peaked at the end of last year. Despite widespread criticism, and even obstruction in Parliament, the PM chose to remain quiet and made a public statement assuring citizens that they can practice their faith more than a month after the ‘ghar wapsi’ controversy had erupted.
This time too, either the PM thinks the issue will blow over or he is waiting for the Parliament session to start -- where it is expected the Opposition will kick up a storm -- and respond accordingly.
If this persists, Modi will be known as much for his silence as his masterful political communication.