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Modi’s silence on scams

August 10, 2015

At least two arguments are in circulation to explain Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cryptic silence over the scams and controversies that dog his government. First, that his silence is premeditated and born out of calculations so as to prevent the trap laid for him by the Congress-led Opposition; second, that he has been tightlipped so as to nail his detractors within his own Bharatiya Janata Party.

Modi’s silence on scams

Let’s discuss the second argument first. The prominent names that figure in the scams are of those who are considered Modi’s political adversaries within the Bharatiya Janata Party. Hence a conspiracy theory emanating from the precincts of the South Block cannot be dismissed either. Much is already written about how the victims of the scams and their uncomfortable past equations with Modi could be a reason for Modi’s studied silence on the issue even at a time when the Congress-led Opposition has even paralysed the proceedings of the present monsoon session of Parliament.

No doubt that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan – the three important protagonists of the various scams – are all in the soup not just because of an offensive Opposition, but also because of a surprisingly reticent Prime Minister and his alter ego, the BJP president Amit Shah, who have thus far left them alone to fend for themselves.

Let’s consider the case of all these players individually. Swaraj is implicated for ensuring the ‘fugitive’ industrialist and disgraced cricket administrator Lalit Modi received travel papers to visit his ailing wife in Portugal from Britain. Raje is accused of signing documents so as to ensure Lalit Modi’s stay in Britain. Both Swaraj and Raje are even charged of dubious financial deals with Lalit Modi. Chouhan’s name has been dragged into the multi crore Vyapam scam in his state, where close to fifty persons have died mysteriously thus far. Though a case in the Vyapam scam was lodged on July 7, 2013 – much before the BJP came to power at Centre, Modi’s studied silence does leave Chouhan in a lurch.

It cannot be a coincidence that all the above mentioned leaders had rubbed Modi the wrong way at some point in time in recent past. Raje had ignored Narendra Modi and not invited him in her campaign at Charbhuja in mid-2013. Swaraj’s proximity to the sidelined BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani is all too well known (a media report even suggested that Swaraj holds two senior leaders in the BJP to be behind the whole controversy to discredit her).  Chouhan was a serious challenger to Modi as he too, aspired to be the BJP’s PM candidate before Modi clinched the issue for himself in the last general election. Moreover, Chouhan had reportedly even urged the then BJP president Rajnath Singh to offer the Bhopal seat to Advani when the latter had decided to throw a fit about not wanting to contest from Gandhinagar in Gujarat! Political commentators had interpreted the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister’s move as an attempt to turn his state into a “refuge for Modi baiters”!

Before dwelling more on the issue, let it be clear that the BJP has unmistakably put in its weight behind these leaders and vehemently defended them in face of an aggressive opposition that is baying for their blood. There are two more BJP leaders whose resignations are being fiercely demanded by the Congress — Chief Minister Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh whose name is involved in alleged involvement in a Rs. 36,000 crore Public Distribution System rice scam, and Maharashtra minister Pankaja Munde who faced much criticism for having cleared a grossly overestimated Rs. 206 crore worth tender for chikkis (for mid-day meal in schools), books, and mats!

In all these cases, the BJP has put up a brave front to present itself as a cohesive unit in face of the mounting pressure and the Parliament logjam. The party’s crisis managers including Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have indeed gone all out in their drive to blunt the Opposition’s assault both in Parliament and outside it.

The reason is palpable – the BJP will not like itself look faction-ridden and hence vulnerable to the Opposition’s onslaught.

But wouldn’t Modi’s statement to clear the air make much difference? Consider that his silence gave an opportunity to even Advani to swipe at him by preaching that “For a politician, to command people’s trust is the biggest responsibility. What morality demands that is ‘rajdharma’ and need to maintain probity in public life”.

The question though is that doesn’t the situation demand the Prime Minister to intervene at a time when one of his senior Cabinet Ministers as well as senior party Chief Ministers are implicated, at least to clear the logjam in Parliament?

Also consider the bad press his silence has invited internationally that threatens to create an adverse public opinion on his sincerity in tackling corruption. In its editorial on 12th July, The New York Times opined that “The scam can only dishearten voters who voted last year to elect Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party in the belief that he would end corruption…Mr. Modi needs to speak out against these scandals now…”

But Modi, despite being a loquacious person, seems more circumspect and guarded in the face of an adversity. Remember how all these years he refused to utter a word when confronted with questions on his controversial role as the Chief Minister in Gujarat riots of 2002? He had the impudence to even walk out of television shows whenever asked uncomfortable questions on riots. Obviously, he knows how to remain selectively silent on embarrassing issues. But is this a personal trait?

At hindsight, Modi today is, too, experienced a politician to be drawn into controversies. But being the Prime Minister, can he afford to remain silent on issues that paralyse the Parliament proceedings? In recent past his strategy to adopt measured silence failed when after remaining silent for three days in December last year, he was forced to reprimand his minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti for her “Ramzaadaa…” comment, so as to break the logjam in the Rajya Sabha — “The minister has apologised and the House should gracefully accept that and carry forward its business in national interest,” Modi had to plead then. (Jyoti had stoked a controversy when she asked the voters in a BJP election rally in Delhi to elect Raamzaada (sons of Lord Ram) and not “Haraamzaada” (“illegitimate sons”).

There was another instance when Modi had to break his prolonged silence well after six months of the first of the series of attacks on religious places in Delhi (There were at least five attacks on Churches in the national capital between August last year and February this year). This was only after none other a person than the US President Barrack Obama stated in the course of his January visit to New Delhi that Mahatma Gandhi would have been “shocked” by religious attacks in India.

Finally, it was on 18th February that Modi ultimately broke his silence to assure Christian groups at a function in New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan that “”We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard”.

This time again, Modi’s silence on scams seems an expected trait of his persona but this may only be partial truth. Hence, this brings to light the other argument on whether Modi’s silence is premeditated and part of a well-thought-out strategy to blunt the opposition parties.

Consider how the Congress has sensed an opportunity to target Modi by engineering a logjam in Parliament over Vyapam and Lalitgate. It has continuously disrupted Parliament’s monsoon session, demanding resignations of Swaraj, Raje, Chouhan and Raman Singh as well. On 6th July, the Congress party even posted pictures of Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan, along with Modi, with the caption: “Three corrupt Chief Ministers, one silent Prime Minister”.

Obviously, the Opposition’s strategy had been to drag Modi into the controversy and force him make a commitment. But then, the question is that why shouldn’t Modi himself take the lead and clear all airs, instead of giving an opportunity to the Congress to gain political mileage out of his silence?

Already the parliament deadlock and subsequent suspension of 25 Congress MPs by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, has provided much desired media space to the Congress – a rarity these days. Besides, the suspension also helped the party garner the much required support of some other Opposition parties including the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal United and the Left. The Congress-led opposition has also got an issue to be played up in public.

Besides, Modi’s silence has also allowed the largely mocked Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi an opportunity to directly target the Prime Minister over the latter’s much touted “Na Khaoonga, Na Khane doonga (Neither will I indulge in corruption nor will I allow anyone else) comment. The BJP’s retort that “When Congress was indulging in scams, then Gandhi was silent,” exemplifies nothing more than a tit-for-tat approach – that nobody is above suspicion in today’s murky politics!

Apparently, the Prime Minister’s media managers are now trying to give a whole new twist to the issue by drawing an analogy between Modi and his immediate predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh – that how unlike Manmohan Singh’s silence on his government’s corruption was perceived to be a sign of weakness, while Modi’s silence on the Lalit-Sushma row is strategic!

 Still, when it comes to any strategy vis-a-vis the Opposition’s effort to drag him into the controversy, Modi needs to decide what comes first – Nation or expediency! As for the Congress and other Opposition parties, it seems to have initially won the battle of wits by successfully laying a trap for Modi that places him in a Catch-22 situation – – If he acknowledges the scams, he divides his party.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the BJP wants a debate on the issue of culpability of its leaders and refuses to concede the Opposition’s demand to sack them. While investigations too, are going on, Modi might prefer to remain silent till these scams related investigations are over. The monsoon session of Parliament, in any case, is as good as over!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are of those of the author and do not represent the views of Elections.in.

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