During the 2014 election campaign, Narendra Modi took great pleasure in deriding incumbent prime minister Manmohan Singh as ‘weak’ and ‘voiceless’. At rallies, he was frequently taunted as ‘Maun’mohan Singh, playing on the Hindi word for silence. At a Shimla rally, Modi asked why ‘Maunmohan’ Singh and Sonia Gandhi kept a stony silence on issues like inflation and price rise under the UPA.
Each epithet Modi threw at Manmohan Singh is now rebounding on him with a vengeance. Some call it Modi’s own karma while others say it is Keshubhai Patel’s curse.
More than a decade ago, in 2012, Modi found himself isolated. Even the RSS organ Panchjanya had hit out at Modi’s ‘style of functioning’ as Gujarat’s chief minister. Pitted against Modi were an array of Gujarat seniors like former chief minister Suresh Mehta, Kashiram Rana, Gordhan Zadaphia, Nalin Bhat, Sidharth Parmar and Pravin Maniar.
Aging and ailing, Keshubhai Patel often cursed his old chela and called him a ‘rhino’. He asked people to guard against the antics of the lanpot sankh (a Gujarati term for braggart). He described Modi as a ‘demon’ favouring industrialists at the expense of the poor.
A decade later, Modi’s involvement with the industrialist that Keshubhai had in mind has seemingly left him speechless. He has not uttered a word about the damning revelations contained in the Hindenburg report about his friend Gautam Adani’s alleged stock market manipulations, accounting irregularities and undisclosed transactions. In the resultant stock market turmoil, the Adani Group’s net worth was halved.
The issue rocked parliament, with the opposition insisting on a joint parliament committee (JPC) inquiry into the scam and that the prime minister should come to the house to explain his relationship with the Adanis. While Modi himself maintained maun all along, his colleagues persistently stonewalled every demand for public scrutiny, made in and outside parliament. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal went to the extent of alleging that the money involved ‘actually’ belonged to Modi. He said Adani was merely a front.
This is an extremely serious allegation levelled by a chief minister. He has challenged the very personal integrity of the country’s prime minister. Modi had in the past charged the UPA government with a series of scams. But no one had ever accused Manmohan Singh of personal involvement. In fact, no prime minister in India was ever accused of this kind of direct personal involvement in any such misdemeanours, not even Rajiv Gandhi, who was accused of enriching his friends but not himself. This renders Modi’s silence on the Adani imbroglio even more surprising.
Blame it on the stars or karma, the dawn of 2023 found Modi totally tongue-tied on half a dozen pressing issues. For several months, India’s champion wrestlers were on the streets seeking action against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh – who is also a BJP MP. Women wrestlers, including minors, alleged repeated sexual misbehaviour by Singh, who had for years established a vice-like grip on the entire federation.
Crucial positions in the WFI are held by his kin and friends who controlled the entire outfit. As the agitation and dharna continued at Jantar Mantar, Modi and his ministers were busy breaking the morale of the protesters. While Singh was gaily rubbing shoulders with his party bosses at the inauguration of the new Parliament building, the police were manhandling the wrestlers at Jantar Mantar. They were detained and kept in the police station for hours before finally being charged with rioting.
At one stage, the wrestlers were so disheartened by Modi’s refusal to break his silence that they went to Hardwar to throw their medals into the Ganga. However, they were persuaded not to do so by leaders of the farmers’ unions. The wrestlers also got widespread support from the middle classes and youth. A C-Voter survey found that 68.4% of the people interviewed wanted the PM to take strong action against the accused BJP MP.
Khap panchayats extended full support to the wrestlers and organised their own protests. Women from the mahapanchayat rushed to Delhi to join the wrestlers’ dharna. None of this moved Modi who, as a diehard despot, went by his own cold calculations. Jat votes, which can influence 40 Lok Sabha seats spread over four states, are important for him. But ignoring the Brijbhushan factor in Uttar Pradesh could also be politically fatal.
It is this dilemma that forced India’s “strongest prime minister” into a long maunvrat on the issue. Yet behind the scenes, he tried to break the agitation. He deputed Anurag Thakur, who sought to wean away what the establishment thought was the most vulnerable section. Though the Supreme Court refused to monitor the investigation, its verdict forced the police to move.
The reason for Modi’s stony silence on the Manipur violence, now ongoing for over two months, belongs to a third category. The ethnic clashes which began on May 3 have forced 37,000 people into relief camps, 12,000 people to flee and have killed at least 142. Over 36,000 central forces personnel have been deployed in the state. Caught in a cleft stick of its own creation, any solution the government suggests could bounce back on it.
Authoritarians the world over avoid such risks. They always seek to take credit for positive achievements and carefully avoid unpopular decisions. Hence, Modi deputed Amit Shah to Manipur – where the latter drew a blank. This explains his refusal even to meet an opposition delegation to discuss the situation in Manipur for 10 days. Finally, they left a memorandum at the PMO. Other delegations from Manipur also had similar experiences. Angry at Modi’s silence, the protesters refused to listen to his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ homilies.
The clashes have forced even the RSS to make a formal appeal for peace. But not India’s prime minister.
Consider how A.B. Vajpayee handled a similar situation in July 2001. He took an all-party delegation to Manipur and held two all-party meetings. This should be the practice in a democracy. Discussion at the National Integration Council was another tradition during the pre-Modi era.
Sidestepping uncomfortable truths
Silence as a device to sidestep uncomfortable truths has been spreading to new areas. The PM persistently avoids talking about the ingress of Chinese troops at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) ever since his 2020 faux pas. Modi had surprised everyone by claiming that “neither has anyone intruded into Indian territory nor has anyone captured any military posts”, which contradicted his government’s statements.
Similar silence prevails on price rise and the economic situation after his gaffe on inflation in February last year.
In one of his rare retorts, Manmohan Singh had way back in 2018 asked Modi why he was afraid of holding press conferences and thus avoiding media scrutiny. The former PM has a point. Unlike other PMs, Modi has never held a press conference. In the US, he attended a press conference after eight years but took only one question.
Even this misfired badly. Instead of the soft questions Modi is used to, the Wall Street Journal‘s correspondent asked a highly embarrassing question. This led to wild trolling of the journalist by the BJP’s social media soldiers. Things got so ghastly that the White House issued a formal statement condemning the ‘harassment’.
It is not for nothing that Maun-Modi sets great value by what is now his trademark silence.
P. Raman is a veteran journalist.