PUT THE GENIE BACK IN THE BOTTLE
Social conflicts in a deeply polarised society — where the chasm between the liberals and the conservatives is widening by the day — are not negotiated through silence. A leader of Mr Modi’s stature and sensitivity cannot squint through these malevolent times -- when there is this egregious outpouring of hatred, bigotry and violence -- with the stoicism of a hermit in a pagoda.
Unless, of course, the Prime Minister too is feeling marginalised and persecuted like the rest of us. Almost like a hapless Pradhan Sevak who must stick to the ideological template and respond to the ‘aadesh’ from his feudal overlords.
The sense of dismay is even greater when one realises that the BJP has taken its eyes off its all-inclusive development agenda and instead sees its own political fortunes as inextricably hitched to the tensions and schisms within the society.
Party rookies and ideologues have been allowed too long to play peek-a-boo with the nation, huffing and puffing in TV studios, stirring fears, demonising communities, whipping us into a state of frenzy...so that we are choking with fear even as we post messages on WhatsApp. They have, in turn, wittingly or unwittingly, spawned a tribe of online flamethrowers who have, in a very short time, brought the worst out of us, turning us into ugly little ducklings.
These discordant voices have empowered us with hate; clawed into our innate insecurities with the zeal of a grave digger and turned our fears into political rhetoric. They have emboldened us to inflict verbal and even physical violence on those whom we despise: That is their malignant influence and one finds it difficult to dispel the misgiving that it is not a command performance.
PM Modi’s monkish silence and inaction in these matters is reminiscent of the pouted reticence of a predecessor — Narasimha Rao — who had similarly sleepwalked into a demolition; and the wooden rectitude of another — Dr Manmohan Singh — whom the nation had suffered in scams out of sheer deference for his age and respect for his white goatee. The distressing aspect is that PM Modi is overcome with eloquence in Parliament and before a captive audience in the Vigyan Bhavan, where he does not tire of telling us that his is a dynamic, fast-paced and a result-oriented administration. Nor does he turn coy in NRI jamborees — where the distinction between politics and entertainment gets blurred when he wants to harness his goodwill abroad for domestic growth — for building high-speed railways and other infrastructure.
In a way, a ‘wooden’ Narendra Modi is even more worrisome because his silence on such matters of social cohesiveness is often perceived by his detractors as strategic or tactical -- that by both retreating and pointed avoidance, he is perhaps allowing the more voluble sections of the parivar to sway the opinion of the majority.
By doing so, one reinforces the impression that extraneous outfits can whimsically interfere with the freedom of citizens; they can control the eating habits of people, tamper with school and college curricula; change heads of institutions; declare an open season for maligning others - in short, ride roughshod over the nation!
This is a deadly solvent and the results are immediately apparent: one, there is a vicious assault on citizen's democratic rights; two, a subtle message goes to the media that if you mess with us, there will be heavy costs to pay. Result: other institutions take the cue and allow themselves to be coopted; even the right-thinking citizens feel intimidated enough to keep their own counsel; and the rest go with the flow.
Thus the business of governance is not merely thrown off course but the entire nation is pushed to the fringe - the outer limits of sanity; the gulf between the conservative and the liberal widens; the secular ambience gets vitiated.
The leader of a party that does not tire of blaming the Congress for not addressing anti-Sikh violence with expediency is at least expected to show a little more alacrity in condemning a senseless cult of verbal assault. Articulate and expressive leaders do not wait for a year for the groundswell of public opinion to build in the streets before they take control of the situation and make trite remarks such as - ''violence never has and never will solve any problem.’’
The nation would also appreciate if the BJP leaders stop invoking Gandhi and reminding us of his ideals; we would prefer if we were equally convinced of Mr Modi's unfailing humanism and he would say that he personally disapproves of any hate campaign against the Muslims.
Mr Prime Minister, the world is so convinced about your own unfailing brilliance, why can't you then see the obvious connect between Gau Rakshaks, love jihad etc and the thinly disguised hate campaign against the minority community?
Why not come out with a unequivocal statement -- not one couched in cow worship niceties -- underscoring that nobody should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, what they eat or how they worship.
There are times when a Prime Minister needs to calm down a nation, soothe its frayed nerves, banish its fears, exorcise its ghosts -- past and present.
We are indeed blessed that PM Modi is not just a figure head to be notionally worshipped like the cosmic cow and to be depicted on a calendar; rather, he is a robust and, from all in-house accounts, a decisive leader. True, in the interim, he may have excused himself from the task of actual governance, and possibly a punishing schedule does not allow him time to showcase his moral leadership. Also, he is perhaps feeling a trifle low these days as the public perception about his government does not match with his sense of grand accomplishments.
But somehow I hold the PM in such awe that I find it difficult to accept that his strategic sulk is a manifestation of his supposed feebleness, his sense of political caution and general disinclination to take any action against vitriolic voices. But eyebrows are bound to rise because this is becoming a habitual reluctance to intervene by word or gesture.
My elementary maths tells me that it will take him just ten seconds on Man Ki Baat to ask these inflammatory voices to shut up --voices which are also incompatible with development goals. PM Modi had the courage to do what he thought was politically the right thing -- be it demonetisation or Doklam. We all realise he is not averse to taking a decision even if it alienates a section of society. Because he has the sagacity to understand that it is better to put his prime ministership on the line rather than go down in history as a head of government who frittered away a golden opportunity on the whims of fossilised ideologues.
If you, Mr Prime Minister, still can't fathom what I am saying, take a day off and run through any Facebook account -- it is strewn with jokes about you and your government. So, just two words are needed -- Keep quiet! And if you are still not able to muster the political will and keep buckling under the weight of your ideology, indeed go and take refuge in a pagoda, away from the quotidian din of politics. Because the nation cannot suffer your infinite patience. A crisis is a good time to connect with the nation, very often by starting a conversation. We will hear you out.
It was easy to browbeat a nation into submission on demonetisation. It was easier still to use a pliable media to weave a narrative about surgical strikes. The difficult part is changing the nature of public discourse. You can make a beginning by taking the nation in your embrace, so that we too can feel the warmth of the 56 inch chest.
There is a disturbing schizophrenic streak to a party that talks in multiple voices and chooses to be a dummy in the hands of a ventriloquist. But be warned that when it comes to a crunch, the dummy can become a handy scapegoat, too. So, before you become politically expendable -- and you know what a tenuous relationship you have had with the ideologues in Gujarat -- break free, find your voice, help bring down the walls, help cement the fault lines. Put the genie back in the bottle. That would be then your lasting legacy — of a man who was most misunderstood by the liberals and the secular minded.
THE DIFFICULT PART is changing the nature of public discourse.You, Mr Prime Minister, can make a beginning by taking the nation in your embrace, so that we too can feel the warmth of the 56 inch chest.
The author is editor of The Free Press Journal