In Manmohan Singh’s 10 years in office, he had the Gandhi’s to contend with. When he was not looking over his shoulder at, or deferring to, Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, he was humouring recalcitrant allies. However, on the face of it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no such constraints. There are few allies that could potentially hold the government to ransom; so he cannot possibly seek refuge in the “compulsions of coalition politics” often cited by his predecessor. There is no parallel centre of power in the party what with his acolyte Amit Shah presiding over the BJP’s affairs; so, again, he cannot possibly do a Manmohan Singh and get away by passing the buck to the party. And, last but not the least, Modi is a first-rate orator, which has never been Singh’s strong suit.
Yet, for reasons best known to Modi, he has chosen to keep his own counsel over l’affaire Swaraj and the unfolding Lalit Modi saga. This, when conventional wisdom would lend itself to suggest that, for Modi, who owes his carefully-crafted image of a decisive leader in no small part to his predecessor for being a perfect foil to him, being likened to Maunmohan Singh would do more harm than good to him in the game of perceptions.
This, coming from a leader, who, in the run up the 2014 Lok Sabha election, had chided his rival for not adopting a policy of zero tolerance to corruption. And, a party, whose president recently said, while recounting the achievements of the Modi Government over the past year, that it had restored the dignity of the prime minister’s office. It would not be an exaggeration to say that if ‘your riot was worse than mine’ has been the bjp’s boilerplate response to the Congress over the years, today Manmohan Singh could well retort that ‘your silence is worse than mine’!
So, what explains Modi’s deafening silence? What is one to make of his wilful and deliberate reticence on these, and other, issues that are agitating people’s minds?
As the government braces itself for the monsoon session of Parliament, beginning 21 July, one cannot but recall 2012 when Singh was buffeted by the fallout of the coal scam and Sushma Swaraj was the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. On the occasion, an embattled Singh had sought to justify his silence by reciting an Urdu couplet: “Hazaaron jawabon say achchhi hai meri khamoshi, na jaane kitnay sawaalon ki aabru rakhay (my silence, which is better than a thousand answers, has kept the honour of many questions intact).” Not to be outdone, Swaraj responded thus: “Tu idhar udhar ki na baat kar, yeh bata ki kaafila kyun luta; hamein rahzanon se gila nahin, teri rehbari ka savaal hai (don’t go by hearsay, tell us why the caravan was looted; we have no grouse against dacoits but it is a question of your leadership)”. What Swaraj had to tell Singh and the erstwhile UPA then, could now well apply to the NDA and Modi: “There are so many pointed questions that the prime minister would have found it embarrassing answering them, which is why he chooses to remain silent.”
Today, for the BJP, and for Swaraj herself, the shoe is on the other foot. While Swaraj’s, and the BJP’s, image have taken a beating, Modi, whose personal stock has dropped, too, has, in his wisdom, chosen to go about his business as usual. Ironically, the only one who has shown the courage of conviction and, therefore, come out sounding reasonable is the “brain-dead” octogenarian BJP leader LK Advani. Brain dead, because, as Yashwant Sinha sarcastically said: “All those who are above the age of 75 were declared brain dead on 26 May 2014, when the Modi Government was sworn in.” (After the Jain hawala scandal broke out, Advani had quit the Lok Sabha whereas Sinha resigned from the Bihar Assembly.) So far, Swaraj has not shown any inclination to heed her one-time mentor and BJP’s Margdarshak Mandal member Advani’s advice.
Modi’s silence betrays his indecisiveness, and that will come as a disappointment to BJP fence-sitters who would otherwise have been tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Clearly, Modi is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. He may yet win this battle but it would be pyrrhic. The buck stops with him.