Millennium Post

Interpreting the PM’s silence

The last time I interviewed Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in 2007, when he was running for a second term as Gujarat Chief Minister. The election was marked by bitterness between the old guard of Gujarat BJP and Modi. Keshubhai Patel had gone on the warpath against Modi and campaigned aggressively within the Patel community in Saurasthra and Kutch. Keshubhai, however, was not alone. Supporting him were the likes of Gordhan Zadaphia and a host of state BJP leaders marginalised by Modi.

Over the course of the interview, I asked Modi if he would seek Keshubhai’s blessings in the event of a victory. We were on his campaign truck and the camera frame was unstable. Yet I could notice a total sense of disapproval in Modi’s eyes. He chose to remain silent. I asked him the same question and it was again met with silence. Unwilling to give up, I persisted. I asked him how the audience should interpret his silence. No answer. This sequence must have played out for 10 seconds in the course of an interview. Since then, Modi has never given me another interview.

My former editor Rajdeep Sardesai also received similar treatment, when he accompanied Modi during the Gujarat assembly election campaign in 2012. He dared to ask him a question about Godhra and the incidents of 2002. Modi had anyway chosen to make him sit on the floor of the bus, since no other place was vacant. Modi met the question with the same response, which was one of silence. In 2014, a similar story played out for Rajdeep. During the Lok Sabha campaign, Narendra Modi chose to ignore repeated requests for an interview.

Silence has been a successful strategy for Prime Minister Modi. When the situation is not to your liking, move the goalposts. In my 2007 interview, I went on to ask him about his government’s policy of lighting up homes in Gujarat. Rajdeep too changed his line of questioning. Fast forward to 2015 and Prime Minister Modi initially chose to ignore or remain silent about the chaos unfolding within the Sangh Parivaar, which includes organistions like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, among others. Modi thought a statement in Parliament would be sufficient to pass on the message that he was indeed serious about controlling extremist elements within the Parivaar. BJP leaders like Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Saakshi Maharaj and Yogi Aditynath, among others, were making statements unbecoming of a responsible politician. “Ghar Wapasi” was back on in full swing.

Soon after the Prime Minister’s ‘good friend’ United States President Barack Obama had arrived, however,  the script went horribly wrong. First, at the Sirifort Auditorium in Delhi and then at National Prayers Day breakfast in Washington earlier this year, Modi’s good friend ‘Barack’ made some rather frank remarks about India.

“Michelle and I returned from India - an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity-but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other people of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs - acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi ji, the person who helped to liberate that nation,” Obama said.

Unlike criticism at home, this was a whole new ball game. The US President himself expressed concern over the plight of religious minorities in India. Making matters worse for Modi was that for the first time since becoming Gujarat Chief Minister in 2001, he suffered an electoral defeat. This defeat must have hurt Modi all the more because he was the leading face of the party’s campaign.

While his approval ratings remained high according to post poll surveys, members of the Indian middle class, the bulwark of Modi’s campaign in 2014, were getting exasperated with the Sangh Paarivar and its talk of communal discord. Modi, therefore, had to break his own omerta. He was forced to speak up to the entire country at a recent Christian gathering in the national capital. “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the minority or the majority, to incite hatred against others,” he said.

But the story does not end here. There are many questions that need to be answered. Has the Prime Minister spoken because of constant nudges from the US President? Was Modi really rattled by what happened in Delhi? Is he worried that the present dispensation’s development agenda, which allowed the BJP to achieve huge gains in the Lok Sabha elections, is being derailed by elements within the Sangh Parivaar?

The Prime Minister’s statement will be dependent on how these questions are perceived by elements within the Sangh Parivaar.

The author is Consulting Editor, CNN IBN
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