IN politics, consummate players have to know when to speak and when to be silent. Manmohan Singh lost his gaddi because he maintained a studied silence at all times, hoping that the storms would spend their fury and vanish into the horizon of comparative calm. Since Rahul Gandhi found his tongue after the extended sabbatical of introspection, he has decided to be loud, uproarious, brash and vulgar, hoping that the pitch and timbre of his vocal fury would move some of his listeners to side with him.
Narendra Modi is a flawless player. He let the entire Lalit Modi affair fade away into the drainage system of the proverbially short memory of the public. He did not speak a word. His loyal fans see a deeper strategy behind the master’s silence. The Opposition criticism reduced the carefully crafted image of those partymen who could pose a political challenge in the future, and Modi let the Opposition perform this odious task for him.
It is, however, not equally evident why he lets the fringe of the Hindutva crowd get away with comments that diminish the stature of the NDA government without even a mild admonition or rebuke.
There are several schools of thought to explain away this studied silence. The most popular belief is that he feels that such hegemonic slogans in defence of Hinduism tend to solidify the Hindu vote bank, which has traditionally been fractured into the secularists and the Hindutva-lovers. To some extent, those Hindus who found it morally superior to flaunt a pro-Muslim stance on contentious issues and personalities of the past may have found it possible to saunter their way into the motley crowd of Muslim-baiters.
This kind of volte-face might not apply to strong characters like Girish Karnad, who might even indulge in deliberately provocative stances in order to receive death threats a la Salman Rushdie. But such exceptions only tend to prove the point.
The second school of thought avers that the views of the lunatic fringe are an extreme version of the basic belief held by Modi himself that Hinduism represents the highest form of civilised thinking over the millennia and across the continents. The way he has introduced yoga into the international arena, persuaded the UN to celebrate World Yoga Day on June 21, patronised the efforts to train millions of people in yoga, introduced yoga education in the schools and so on is one such initiative.
At the philosophical level, he is an acolyte of Swami Vivekananda and is a great votary of Vedanta as being the acme of spirituality. He is a patron of the Vivekananda Foundation and has drafted some of his top advisers from that body.
The third theory contends that he was an RSS pracharak all his life and has been popularising the Sangh ideology by travelling from village to village. Although he was married, he has led a life of bachelorhood. He deeply believes in the theory of an Akhanda Bharat and would like India to emerge as a Hindu Rashtra.
Modi’s opponents contend that his studied silence on crucial issues gives the wrong impression that the statements made by the Sangh functionaries have been averred in the public domain with blessings from the PM.
This may be far from the truth. Let us take the declaration about the need for a rethink on the entire policy of reservation made by Mohan Bhagwat as an instance. At this point of time, when the waters have been muddied by statements and counter-statements galore, it is difficult to guess what Bhagwat meant in the first place and whether it was a casual remark or the result of a carefully thought-out strategy. Did he mean abolition of reservation of seats in educational institutions and the earmarking of posts for recruitment to posts under the government? If so, it could at best be a slip of the tongue for a seasoned politician like the Sarsanghachalak. And Modi is no greenhorn to have instigated it or even tolerated it, considering the potential damage this would cause in the Bihar elections.
If it was a deeply thought-out strategy to fracture the reserved category vote into families receiving the benefit of reservation for the first time and those who had already benefitted from it, that would be a completely different matter. But then, Bhagwat should have made it clear in the very first place. The explanations offered by the spokespersons might have contained the damage somewhat, but it is undeniable that the declaration gratuitously allowed Lalu Prasad Yadav to reap unforeseen political dividend .
There are other instances of Modi’s silence. Take the appointment of the Chairman, FTTI, Pune which has snowballed into a long-drawn controversy. It boggles the imagination as to why the appointment of a nobody like Gajendra Chauhan, who is neither a celebrated actor nor a notable BJP sympathiser, should have been made a point of prestige by the I&B Ministry.
The explanation offered that even in the past persons who were close to the establishment were appointed to such posts is neither here nor there. No one holds the view that a first-rate film actor like, say, Shatrughan Sinha or Hema Malini would have elicited the same kind of response. It is not clear why a call from the PMO did not nip the agitation in the bud.
There have been numerous aberrations perpetrated by the Shiv Sena, which is an uneasy partner of the BJP in Maharashtra. The Sena has opposed any sports or cultural contact with Pakistan. Even a discussion on a book did not materialise. Such antics on the part of the Sena may be acceptable, but not the inability of its BJP partner to distance itself from such extreme viewpoints and to ensure that the events took place with the active support of the government and its law and order machinery.
That brings us to the murder of a literary figure in Karnataka and its fallout in the literary world. It may technically be true that the primary responsibility for maintaining the rule of law rests on the shoulders of the state government. But this does not absolve the Centre of its share of responsibility. The murder of this literary giant sent ripples in the entire community of creative persons and when the Centre showed complete apathy it led to the return of Sahitya Akademi awards and other prizes and honours received by writers, actors, scientists and so on.
The Centre’s defence of its inaction did not cut much ice. To paint the response of the creative community as political and confined to the favourites of previous regimes rubbed salt in their wounds. It was no use pointing out that the Akademies and other bodies could not be held responsible for the atmosphere of intolerance, if there was any. The episode could have been nipped in the bud by registering a CBI case to investigate the murder and giving an assurance from the highest level that such dastardly acts would not go unpunished.
THAT said, it has to be admitted that India is inherently tolerant because that is the nature of Hindus. Hindus are taught with mother’s milk that the whole world is one family and that non-violence is the highest rule of righteous conduct. Thus Hindus have traditionally suffered repression and tyranny at the hands of rulers, invaders and conquerors. Many would call this cowardice, not tolerance.
After independence too, the Hindus have followed a policy of treating the minorities with kid gloves. We adopted a version of secularism which favours the minorities. The received wisdom has been that if Hindus favour the minorities, they are secular, but if they favour Hindus they are communal. The result is that the civil code of Hindus has been amended to accord with the modern values of gender parity, monogamy and so on. The civil code of the minorities has remained untouched. This has caused a demographic imbalance that has pushed the percentage of Muslims to 19 per cent of the total population.
Many observers feel that, with the ascension of Modi to power, there has been a qualitative difference in the way these policies have been adumbrated in the past. The Hindu Rright has started asserting itself. For a long time Nathu Ram Godse was consigned to eternal damnation for having assassinated the Father of the Nation. Now the Godse apologists have emerged from the woodwork. The defence statement of Godse has been widely, openly and extensively circulated and there are several groups who feel no hesitation in criticising the Mahatma for his pro-British, pro-Muslim policies. They defend the murder on the ground that it was the only way the Hindu interest could have been served.
A strong lobby is emerging that there should be a quid pro quo in Indo-Pak relations. It does not see any point in India’s unilateral generosity in granting the most preferred nation treatment to Pakistan, when it is not willing to reciprocate.
On the issue of terrorism, this hawkish lobby asserts that we should not allow Pakistan to have the best of both worlds at our cost. They are sympathetic to the Shiv Sena ideology. They would not permit cricket matches to be played, Pakistani singers to visit India on long, lucrative tours, Pakistani actors to act in Indian plays, serials and films, Pakistani books to be discussed and sold in India and so on until Pakistan shuts up its terrorists within its own boundaries.
On the issue of beef, this lobby wants states which have not yet passed legislation that prohibits the slaughter of cows to do so at the earliest. Those which have banned only cow slaughter should extend the ban to bulls, heifers and so on. Muslims should not be allowed to slaughter, keep and even privately eat the prohibited species.
The Census figures of 2011 which show a marked jump in the proportion of Muslims have triggered a debate on the need to change the law relating to marriages. They should not be permitted to have more than one wife. A special family planning drive should be launched to limit their growing numbers. There should be a strict vigil on the borders with Bangladesh to prevent the entry of illegal immigrants into this country.
Some over-enthusiastic lobbyists have called on the Hindus to boycott films with Muslim heroes. Baba Ramdev has gone to the extent of suggesting that Shahrukh Khan should prepare an estimate of his increased earnings consequent upon the conferment of awards on him and transfer the hundreds of crores of rupees to the PM’s Fund, instead of merely returning a piece of paper to the government.
During the Bihar elections some of these tendencies came to the fore. It was suggested that if the BJP won the elections in Bihar, sweets would be distributed in Pakistan. It is not uncommon for people pleading the cause of Muslims to be advised to migrate to Pakistan and let the Hindus live in peace in India. Some secularists have had their faces blackened with ink or coal tar.
A few years back, Francoise Gautier and Konrad Elst had bemoaned the fate of long-suffering Hindus and put forward the bizarre theory that the Hindus collectively suffered from a “death wish”. The time had come when Hindus should transform themselves into a more assertive community and learn to be aggressive or at least militantly defensive, they said.
Although Modi is generally silent on all these contentious issues, there are some who feel that his very presence at the helm of affairs is a tremendous boost to the Hindu morale. Some of the overt gestures he has made to Hinduism are the promotion of yoga and Sanskrit, his adulatory references to Hindu heroes and philosophies, his presentation of the Bhagwad Gita to world leaders, his open acceptance of Swami Vivekananda as his spiritual mentor, his appointment of persons known to be close to rightist ideology and so on. He has not broken the arrangement with the Shiv Sena. He has adopted a somewhat tough posture towards Pakistan.
In conclusion, one could say that Modi has used the strategy of silence very effectively. He is not always silent, unlike his immediate predecessor. In fact, on most issues he is voluble, loud and repetitive. But on contentious matters, he often lapses into a silence that seems uncharacteristic of him and allows his silence to be variously interpreted both by his admirers and detractors. Therein resides his consummate skill in communication.
MK Kaw is a former Secretary, Government of India. (The views expressed are those of the columnist.)