There is a great noise around Narendra Modi’s silence since the 60-odd days that he has been prime minister. Garrulous Candidate Modi of the campaign trail seems to have morphed into politically correct Prime Minister Modi; a travesty of his taciturn predecessor.
Yes, we know from his tweets that Modi is saddened by the loss of lives in a Pune landslide, wants to harness the potential of our fisheries sector, and salutes the brave martyrs of Kargil.
But of the increasingly frequent litany of comments from the loony brigade there is silence. India’s greatest women’s tennis player is derided by a BJP MP as a ‘daughter-in-law of Pakistan’. No word from the PM.
A political ally shoves a chapati into the mouth of a caterer who is fasting for Ramzan, and our prime minister remains silent.
That indefatigable Hindutva warrior Ashok Singhal warns of “further Hindu consolidation”. Not a murmur. Goa’s ‘Christian-Hindu’ deputy chief minister redefines the Constitution by describing India as a “Hindu country”. Silence.
To be fair, India’s prime minister cannot respond to every 24-hour news outrage cycle — and certainly some of the controversies of the past few weeks have been hyped by TRP-hungry media, Right-wing self-seekers and a floundering Congress opposition.
Yet because it is clear that what is emerging are not stray comments but a pattern of hate speech from members of his own BJP and the larger Right-wing alliance, Modi’s continuing silence is disconcerting for a number of reasons.
First, the silence can be construed as a nod to the raucous brigade. Silence is not just the absence of words. It can also mean tacit support. With Modi refusing to intervene even with a frown, a new day brings a new outrageous statement. And each statement becomes an experiment in how far the Right can push the envelope, especially with minorities. Already history books are being rewritten with such worthies like Dinanath Batra and his fantasies of stem cell research in the Mahabharat make Murli Manohar Joshi’s push to sell astrology as an academic pursuit seem positively modern in retrospect.
Second, the silence poses questions on the priorities of the prime minister. Modi’s emphasis on economic prosperity — speeding up bureaucracy, energy security and bilateral relations — cannot come at the cost of social inclusion. There is no schizophrenia. An economically secure nation must also be secure for all its citizens. Regardless of the reason why, this government suffers from a serious trust deficit amongst minorities. If Modi is honest about taking everyone along then he needs to speak up and stamp out hate speech. He cannot allow minorities and those committed to the idea of secularism to live in an environment of fear and insecurity. He needs to mothball Singhal, Praveen Togadia and their ilk, if only to sell his image as the economic moderniser.
Third, the silence leads to an uncomfortable suspicion. One must ask: Is Modi his own man? Or are political compulsions forcing this maun vrat? Is Modi so beholden to the RSS that he cannot even issue the slightest disapproval?
Fourth, Modi’s prime ministership follows two terms of UPA rule, characterised by near absolute silence from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the aloofness of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. After pitching himself as a man of the people, Modi’s silence could lead to an uncomfortable conclusion of Congress-style arrogance: I don’t owe an explanation to those who elected me.
Finally, in Modi’s diktat to ministers to choose their words carefully, in his refusal to take mediapersons along on official tours, there is a clamping down on information, which is inimical to any democracy.
Modi has a chance to lead, even change, the nation’s discourse. Right now, we are ripe for a thousand unspoken conversations: Secularism, inclusiveness, development, gender, poverty. But instead of a dialogue we have competitive shrillness. Instead of an exchange of ideas we have intimidation.
The first 100 days of any new government is the time it takes for its leader to impose his brand, reveal his vision and show the way forward. But to do that, he must first speak.
The views expressed by the author are personal