Prakash Raj censures Narendra Modi for silence over Gauri Lankesh murder: Why actor's words are significant
At the Manthan Samvaad in Hyderabad (an annual event that is held on Gandhi Jayanti, where eminent people from different walks of life talk about issues concerning the nation), speaker after speaker emphasised the need for citizens in India to speak without fear.
Just days before that (on 27 September), former Union minister Yashwant Sinha wrote in his column in The Indian Express: "I shall be failing in my national duty if I did not speak up even now against the mess the finance minister has made of the economy. I am also convinced that what I am going to say reflects the sentiments of a large number of people in the BJP and elsewhere, who are not speaking up out of fear."
One person who certainly spoke without fear, on the day of Gandhi Jayanti, was National Award winning actor Prakash Raj. Raj questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi's silence on journalist Gauri Lankesh's death, four weeks after she was murdered in cold blood. What is significant about Prakash Raj's outburst is both its content, and that he dared to speak out against the most powerful person in the country.
"We do not know who killed them (the journalists and rationalists). But we do know who is celebrating the murders. When you see that the Prime Minister of the country is following (on Twitter) those who are celebrating the murders, when he is not taking a stand against it, when he has maintained silence on the issue — that silence hurts,'' said Prakash Raj. He added, "As a citizen of this country, I am disturbed, hurt and afraid by the silence of the Prime Minister. I am talking to my Prime Minister and I say, 'Your silence is chilling'. I have a right to say this.''
These are important and strong words. Prakash Raj is saying the Prime Minister has let him down with his conduct. The actor stresses on his right to state publicly, his disappointment that Modi — a person extremely aware of what is happening around him — chose to keep mum over Gauri's murder.
Raj's angst finds expression at a time when the rest of Bollywood, Kollywood, Sandalwood have chosen the path of silence, for they now know the price they have to pay for speaking up. Aamir Khan came under severe attack after his remarks on intolerance in 2015 and was subsequently removed as the brand ambassador of Incredible India. Shah Rukh Khan — after burning his fingers similarly — now plays it safe. The most influential voices of cinema have realised that the echo chamber that has been set up both online and offline, seeks a homogeneity of voices and any dissonant/out-of-sync voice is targeted viciously.
Here, Raj is seeking accountability from the Prime Minister because the Gauri Lankesh case matters to him at a personal level. Gauri was his close friend and her father — the late P Lankesh — was Raj's mentor. He feels betrayed by Modi's conduct; his expression of hurt similar to that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who advised Modi that rajdharma should be followed.
If the past is anything to go by, Modi will ignore Raj's barbs. That is also because Raj — despite his popularity — is not the kind of figure who would be able to make people rally around him. While his pan-India popularity will ensure for him headline space, it also diffuses the political impact he may make, for the same reason. Though he hails from Karnataka, his body of work is much more in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi.
In the past, Raj has refrained from making strong political statements. Is this then a one-off instance, a guest appearance of sorts? Or will the actor try to build on his disappointment by allying with other Modi and BJP detractors and be to the anti-Modi space what Anupam Kher and Madhur Bhandarkar are to the pro-Modi camp?
In case Raj is looking for a longer role in the political arena, 'Kamal Haasan Political Productions' could be a possible platform, given that the two actors have worked together and are known to be friends. Raj's powerful oratory could just be the ammunition a non-saffronite Kamal Haasan may be looking for.