A strong prime minister is more than just a political leader. At critical moments, when unfortunate developments have disturbed the nation, he also needs to articulate a moral position the country can rally around. Often this is the more important part of leadership.
Now these are still very early days but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on three occasions, when his voice should have been heard loudly and unequivocally, is a little unsettling. It’s not enough to form a conclusion but it is sufficient to sound a warning.
The three developments are the Badaun rape and hanging, the murder of the Pune techie and the arrest of 18 students in Kerala for lampooning and criticising Mr Modi in their college magazine. I’m aware Mr Modi referred to the first two in his inaugural Lok Sabha speech but that was en passant, inadequate and, many people thought, lacking in strong condemnation. To use an old cliché, it was both too little and too late!
In two of these cases I would have thought Mr Modi would want to speak out, not just against what happened, but because it’s in his personal interest to so do. That single fact makes his silence inexplicable.
The first is the Pune murder. In this case a young boy of 24 was battered to death because he wore a beard and, therefore, looked like a Muslim. For that reason alone the Hindu Rashtra Sena held him responsible for certain derogatory references to Bal Thackeray and Shivaji on Facebook, although they had no proof whatsoever. Even today no one knows who is actually responsible. The police have no clue.
This was, therefore, a straight-forward hate crime. It was an attack on a Muslim because he was a Muslim. It was also a God-given opportunity for the prime minister to tell the extremist fringe of his supporters that he will not tolerate such acts. Had he been prompt to condemn he would have sent out a powerful message about himself. Alas, his silence only aroused old doubts.
The Kerala arrests touch on Mr Modi more directly and here his silence is more perplexing. In two separate incidents, 18 college students have been arrested and charged with defamation for lampooning or criticising the prime minister in their college magazine. This is a clear attack on freedom of expression and it makes a mockery of Prakash Javadekar’s claim “We believe that press freedom is the essence of democracy”, which I applauded last Sunday.
I would have expected Mr Modi to immediately distance himself from the Kerala police action, criticise the highhanded arrests and demand the cases be dropped. Once again, that would also have been the politically astute response. But all we got was silence.
Now, Mr Modi is far too accomplished a politician to knowingly forego these opportunities to send out re-assuring and badly needed messages. There has to be some other explanation. But what? The alternatives — he did not know, he was too busy, he forgot — don’t make sense.
Critics of Mr Modi will, no doubt, claim this proves they are right to be sceptical of him. His admirers will be hard-pressed to come up with a convincing explanation.
Perhaps the truth is that these are dismaying but not, I hope, telling lapses. However, I can’t deny they raise questions that detract from his impressive start and the otherwise attractive new image he is trying to create for himself. That’s why Modi should not brush them aside.
The views expressed by the author are personal