Mum is the word: Is PM Modi deliberately quiet on conversion row?

Will the real Narendra Modi please speak up?

The conversion row seems to have created an entire cottage industry of analysts whose job it is to read into the silence of Narendra Modi.

Thus we have the angry silence of Modi vs the knowing silence of Modi.

According to the first theory, Modi is very upset with the firebrands of VHP and RSS for derailing his Sabka Vikaas Express with the ghar wapsi tamasha. The more extreme versions of this theory have a BJP insider insisting the PM even threatened to resign if the RSS and VHP do not rein in the troops. India Today quotes the Marathi newspaper Maharashtra Times to say that he told RSS leaders that he was disappointed and "does not have the greed to remain in the post if the image of the government is hampered by the leaders who keep making controversial remarks." However publicly he cannot risk showing cracks in the Sangh parivar and so he has to bite his tongue especially because he knows the RSS put its organizational manpower and blessings behind his election. He owes them one. Of course noone takes Modi seriously about any threat to resign. “The Prime Minister of which country? Modi has won a hard-fought mandate; he's not going to throw it away,” says a BJP minister to The Telegraph. While a ghar wapsi on Christmas Day has been cancelled, Hindutva hawks are still spouting off with all kinds of intemperate rhetoric including a Christian and Muslim-mukt Bharat by 2021.

Will the real Narendra Modi please speak up? AFP image

Will the real Narendra Modi please speak up? AFP image

The second theory however has Modi as the cunning mastermind who is actually not just aware of everything going on but has given it his full blessings albeit covertly. Yet another BJP insider tells The Telegraph "Modi can't openly endorse what the Sangh leaders are doing without provoking diplomatic censure from the West; that's why he is letting others speak." The Hindu reports some of those "re-converted" to Hinduism near Agra said they were told the Modi government wanted to help the poor and they would get BPL cards. Whether that's true or not, it's easier to take the PM's name in vain when the PM has not said anything one way or the other.

Mind you these are not Congress sources or tweets from LutyensMasala. These are apparent BJP insiders in full contradiction-mode.

The silence of Modi has meant a slew of confusing messages coming out of the BJP. “The BJP has nothing to do with reconversions or conversions,” says Parliamentary Affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu who had just a week ago raised the issue of a blanket anti-conversion law. While some BJP leaders want to stay above the conversion fray and want to dismiss it as a distraction being blown out of proportion by desperate Opposition leaders, others are saying the BJP will take the issue head on without appearing evasive or defensive. Again we hear from BJP insiders (a very locquacious lot) that the PM has told his ministers to act tough. “We have not done anything wrong and why should we worry” is what he supposedly told them.

Thus there are a lot of reports about what Modi is saying behind the scenes but in Parliament, when it comes to the official record mum’s the word and on his weekly radio address Modi is talking about drugs. "The prime minister's silence has been deafening," says Dominic Emmanuel, a spokesman for the New Delhi Archdiocese to The New York Times. "If Modi does not speak up now, the situation is going to slip out of his hands."

No wonder a gleeful Derek O’Brien is taunting the PM in the Rajya Sabha saying, “We are not running away from a discussion. We want a discussion on the issue of conversion. We want the PM to come to Rajya Sabha. You don’t need a 56 inch chest. You need a four inch heart.”

But there’s nothing new about the silence of Narendra Modi. It’s actually part of his modus operandi. Unlike Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi who were perennially on silent, Modi is always on very selective mute. He tweets, he instagrams, he gives long speeches but on some of the issues that roil the nation he maintains a stoic silence. At one time it might have seemed he wanted as PM to stay above the fray but when BJP leaders Prakash Javadekar and K. Laxman were butting heads about the Sania Mirza “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law” controversy, Modi’s silence just gave it more life instead of nipping it in the bud. We are always hearing about the tough talk Modi is dispensing behind the scenes but in public he seems to be Mr. Mild.

Even that should not be a surprise. During the campaign when Giriraj Singh made those comments about how those who did not support Modi’s quest to be PM should make their home in Pakistan, Modi’s rebuke was oblique, never named Singh, and much had to be read into a tweet that seemed to refer to the likes of Singh. Within a few months the same Singh is part of his ministry. Likewise with Niranjan Jyoti he let the controversy gather steam and then stepped in with a plea to excuse her because of her background.

The silence of Manmohan Singh made him the butt of Maun-mohan jokes. But the silence of Narendra Modi is far more strategic. It allows him to never be pinned down on an issue one way or the other. BJP insiders provide their contradicting scoops about what’s happening behind the scenes but Modi does not need to ever confirm or deny thus allowing himself the luxury of ample wiggle room with zero evidence trail to link him to one side or the other. He clearly learned after the 2002 Gujarat massacres that the best strategy was to not explain nor answer but to just maintain a silence on issues he does not want to be cornered on. That’s why he likes to give speeches and tweet and do charchas but is far less keen on media briefings and sit-down interviews. During his campaign he steered clear of interviews until the very end when he was clearly the front-runner and the interviewers were more deferential than combative.

The silence of Manmohan Singh became a weapon used against him by the Opposition. "Hazaron jawabo se achchi hai khamoshi meri, na jaane kitne sawalo ki aabru rakhe. (My silence is better than a thousand answers, it keeps intact the honour of innumerable questions)," Singh once said according to The Times of Indiaabout his quietness. Modi was clearly listening and now has perfected the power of silence. Actually it's not silence because the PM is speaking.

We still don't know what he thinks about the conversion row but we are up to speed on his thoughts about Charan Singh on his 112th birth anniversary.


Published Date: Dec 24, 2014 08:05 am | Updated Date: Dec 24, 2014 08:05 am