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From M.J. Akbar to Kathua

By D.K. Singh

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014, he kept thinking that he was new to Delhi and people believed he would take a year or two to understand the intricacies of the government’s functioning. After a month in office, he revealed that the thought did not exist in his mind any longer. He took no time to figure out the snakes-and-ladder games played in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Over four years since then, trust Modi to predict the next moves of the veteran players of this game, but the latter still seem clueless about his game. What else could explain the haste to declare the political epitaph of union minister M.J. Akbar in TV studios and newspapers!
He was widely anticipated to be the biggest catch of the #MeToo movement, but he just dismissed all the allegations of sexual harassment against him, giving it a political colour by linking them with the general elections a few months away. Akbar’s (read Modi’s and Amit Shah’s) decision to brazen it out should come as no surprise. When was the last time Modi or Shah sacrificed a trusted lieutenant under pressure from opposition parties?

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh had exposed their vulnerability by sacrificing then-external affairs minister Natwar Singh in the alleged oil-for-food scam early in the UPA’s first term (in December 2005). Having tasted blood, the BJP, the principal opposition party at that time, went on to force the Congress leadership to drop union ministers and chief ministers – Shivraj Patil, A.R. Antulay, Ashok Chavan and A. Raja – among others. Sonia Gandhi is said to rue those decisions now. Modi and Shah learnt their lessons from her ‘mistake’. Nobody in the NDA government or the BJP can do any wrong now.

And that explains Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence, yet again. He hasn’t said a word on the #MeToo movement, not even to defend Akbar.

He was silent when BJP leaders and sympathisers in Jammu were holding marches in support of the accused in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child in Kathua. He was silent when there was a nationwide outrage over Yogi Adityanath government’s inaction against rape accused and BJP MLA from Unnao, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, despite the rape survivor’s attempted suicide outside his residence and the alleged murder of her father.

Modi spoke on these incidents after weeks. That’s the norm, not an aberration. His responses to controversial incidents, especially the ones involving those associated with the BJP or the Sangh affiliates, have been usually belated, often indirect and vague, and at times evasive.

Modi as well as the ruling BJP’s entire central leadership have chosen to look the other way as BJP leader and actor Kollam Thulasi declares that women who dare enter Sabarimala temple should be “torn into two pieces”. They did the same when external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was at the receiving end of trolls, many of whom are said to be followed by the Prime Minister.

The irony is Modi, when he was aspiring for the top job in Delhi, used to mock his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, for his silence, calling him ‘Maunmohan’. Singh’s political mentor, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, was known to speak through his silence.

Interactions with Modi’s ministerial and party colleagues familiar with his thoughts and views on different issues suggest that his silence is not strategic as Rao’s was. It’s not blithe indifference either. The reason is a mélange of factors –past experience, strong self-preservation instincts, combativeness, and confidence or self-belief bordering on conceit.

Under persistent attack from the media, the intelligentsia, civil rights activists and political adversaries since 2002 post-Godhra riots – which started when he was barely 20 weeks in office as the Gujarat chief minister – Modi has developed deep apprehension about them.
When violence broke out at Bhima-Koregaon in Maharashtra early this year, he didn’t react although it involved Scheduled Castes whom the saffron party has been aggressively wooing. That was because of the belief at the top echelons of the government that it was a “bunch of JNU people”, and not commoners, who were trying to instigate them, an insider shared with this writer.

Similarly, the Prime Minister maintained a prolonged silence when four senior judges of the Supreme Court in January virtually rose in rebellion against the Chief Justice of India at that time. “Some media people then asked why he was not intervening. But if he said or did something, the same media would say ‘look, Modi is interfering in judiciary’. He knows the Delhi media,” said the insider.

The media, the ‘JNU people’ (broadly, the section of the intelligentsia who are perceived to be Left-leaning), the NGOs, and the opposition parties have all come to be seen – and projected – as purveyors of half-truths, if not outright falsehood. If the Prime Minister starts responding to every issue raised by them, he would be “playing into their hands”, say his lieutenants.

There is a pattern to Modi’s silence. When he himself is under attack from the opposition – say, on Rafale deal or Sahara diaries – he lets his ministers do the talking. He maintains prolonged silence when the BJP’s political interests are at stake, for instance the Kathua incident, which local BJP leaders sought to use to mobilise the majority community in Jammu, or the Unnao incident involving a BJP MLA. And when he does break his silence, it’s confined to generalities – “our daughters will definitely get justice”. The BJP hasn’t expelled Kuldeep Singh Sengar, the Unnao rape accused, from the party yet.

Despite all the controversies and public outrage over a host of incidents, Modi has remained Teflon-coated. Veteran politician Sharad Pawar may be right that people have no doubts about his intentions in the Rafale deal. In fact, none of the allegations levelled against Modi by the opposition seem to have stuck. Surveys still find him the most popular leader in the country.

But the Prime Minister better start breaking his silence on issues agitating the minds of the people. A common refrain during conversations at tea stalls, restaurants and in metros nowadays (not in air-conditioned drawing rooms, mind you) is: “Modi is good, but he is surrounded by the wrong people”. And, that’s not a flattering assessment of a government six months before the next general elections.