Talking Turkey: Modi's silence is his undoing
It took Mr Modi nearly a month to pronounce on the unspeakable act of cow protection vigilantes in Gujarat.
Independence Day anniversary is a time for stocktaking. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi unfurls the tricolour at Red Fort today for the third time, how does he measure up in the domestic and external fields? The record is mixed with highs and lows. To begin with, the advent of Mr Modi was like a breath of fresh air, coming as he did after a lacklustre stint of the United Progressive Alliance-2, beset as it was with scams and a dual key arrangement detrimental to efficient governance and the prestige of the Prime Minister. Mr Modi also introduced an activist phase in foreign policymaking, wooing the United States as a major partner because it remains the sole superpower, with China looming on the horizon.
In the domestic field, Mr Modi tried to correct the aberrations of his initial Cabinet lineup in a second major reshuffle by relieving the human resources development ministry from the dead weight of Smriti Irani, originally intended to please the party’s mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He also brought in Dalits and backward classes into the Union council of ministers with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. Mr Modi did bring in a measure of purposefulness in running the government and with his unerring eye for showmanship, most programmes had catchy slogans to denote his priorities such as “Make in India” and “Swachh Bharat”. Where he failed was in giving public guidance on major issues of concern in a reasonable time frame.
Two errors of the Prime Minister are conspicuous. The oppression of Dalits symbolised by the atrocious lynching of Dalits in Una, Gujarat, took him nearly a month to pronounce on the unspeakable act of cow protection vigilantes. Then he spoke on the problem on two successive days only to reveal his vulnerability. He received a mouthful from the Sangh Parivar, with the RSS faulting him for suggesting 70 to 80 per cent of the cow protection vigilantes were fake. As a dutiful RSS worker, he corrected the estimate the next day to “a handful”. Mr Modi’s reluctance to deal with the problem sooner was clear from the hate mail he attracted from a section of the Parivar.
A second major mistake of Mr Modi was in taking a month publicly to deal with the dangerous turn the Kashmir problem had taken. And when he broke his silence, it was at a public meeting in Madhya Pradesh, not in Parliament, as was piquantly pointed out by the Opposition benches when the issue was debated in the Rajya Sabha. The Prime Minister was undoubtedly closely following events as anti-government riots took an ugly turn but it was his duty as the country’s leader to promptly reach out to Kashmiris and other citizens. In foreign affairs, Mr Modi started on the right note by inviting Nawaz Sharif, his Pakistani counterpart, among others, to his swearing-in ceremony. And he later raised the stakes by a dramatic dash to Lahore to greet Mr Sharif on his birthday.
Not for the first time in India-Pakistan relations did the bonhomie not last long, with the usual name-calling resumed on both sides. The new Kashmir unrest in the meantime has given the Pakistani side the opportunity to highlight the disputed nature of Kashmir, an evocative issue for Islamabad. It is well known that the Pakistan Army is the king on major foreign policy and security issues. In the end, Mr Modi’s riposte has been to include Pakistan-occupied Pakistan and Balochistan as areas of concern for India and the world. Apart from relations with Pakistan, where Mr Modi is in the long list of Indian leaders who have tried and failed to break a historical logjam, his great stumble was in privately and publicly seeking to enlist the support of China’s President Xi Jinping for India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
The result was China’s public snub in blocking India’s entry. Judging by the Chinese foreign minister’s visit to New Delhi, Beijing is now demanding a high price: India’s support for the mess China has made by defying an international judgement on its extravagant claims in the South and East China seas and building military installations on reefs. One can only hope New Delhi will not be foolish enough to take the bait. In some respects, Mr Modi seems willing to learn from his mistakes. He met with a brick wall in seeking to isolate the Congress in getting the Goods and Services Tax Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha. Then he changed course to seek a compromise with the Congress and other Opposition parties to have the bill passed. Mr Modi faces two kinds of problems in achieving his goals. First, the RSS ties his hands in pursuing sensible policies (assuming he wants to) by insisting on the Hindutva creed.
Even his belated attempt to deal with the Dalit oppression has invited an avalanche of protests from the Sangh Parivar. Thanks to the compulsions of following the RSS script, the BJP-led coalition has accentuated divisions based on caste and creed further inflaming passions in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. There are no easy answers because the BJP and RSS are in a joint enterprise and the latter wields something of a veto power over Mr Modi’s actions. Every problem bearing on RSS priorities in fields touching ideology such as in education will, therefore, be subjected to its distorted view of India’s past and future. One dreads to think of the next generation of graduating students reared on myths as history. In a sense, Mr Modi is hoist with his own petard, because he is so good in directly communicating with people though tweets and Facebook, bypassing his aversion to face-searching questions from journalists. His silences on burning issues of the day therefore stand out like a sore thumb. He has about two years to prove his critics wrong.