Silence is not golden for statecraft
I don’t know how often I’ve heard this said because the truth is I’ve lost count. However, if I was to hazard a guess I’d say on average once a week. So, today, I want to address the critical question it raises: Is this the right response or an attempt to wriggle out of a difficult situation and duck wider responsibilities?
“The Prime Minister doesn’t have to comment on everything” is the sentence I’m alluding to. Alternative versions include the claim “Mr Modi doesn’t have to speak, his ministers have spoken” and “Not every issue needs the Prime Minister to speak out”. This is how journalists are answered when they ask why the prime minister is silent on an issue that has become a matter of national concern.
This was the case when Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched or the ghar-wapsi and love-jihad campaigns were underway or when authors and historians were returning awards. It’s, again, the case now when Kashmir is paralysed with unrest and Dalits are attacked by gau rakshaks believed to be ideologically close to Mr Modi’s party.
Is prime ministerial silence the right way of handling these situations? Only if what the prime minister has to say would offend, disturb or inflame. Not for a moment do I believe that is the case.
Instead, silence only serves to raise questions, create doubt and fuel conspiracy theories. People wonder whether the PM’s silence is deliberate: Does he support the gau rakshaks? Is he unsympathetic to the Dalits? Does he appreciate the gravity of the situation in the Valley?
On the odd occasion when Mr Modi has spoken — as he did to reassure Christians or to distance himself from Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s foolish comments — many feel he was forced to do so. It wasn’t a spontaneous or genuine response. It was dragged out of him under pressure. This means he doesn’t get the benefit of taking a position. Worse, the questions and conspiracy theories linger.
When the country is troubled we look to the prime minister to articulate a position around which the rest of us can rally. This is not to see him as a sage or prophet but you do need the imprimatur of his authority on the right position or the right course of action, particularly when the wrong option is gaining credence and attention.
In Britain this is institutionalised through the tradition of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Every Wednesday, for half an hour, the PM is questioned by members of parliament on any issue they wish to raise. It starts with six consecutive questions by the Leader of the Opposition, followed by two from the leader of the second-biggest party before it’s thrown open to every single member of the House of Commons.
Not only is the prime minister questioned on issues of national concern, she also often seeks this opportunity to make her views known. Thus is her leadership seen, recognised and acknowledged.
I believe the time has come to create something similar in the Lok Sabha. It’s a way of making the government respond to issues of concern. It’s a way of ensuring accountability. And it could be the finest show-casing of our democracy.
The views expressed are personal.