The Silence

When Narendra Modi described Gau Rakshak vigilantes as anti-socials at a town hall-type gathering at the Indira Gandhi Stadium Complex in New Delhi, centrism-minded Indians breathed a sigh of relief. He followed that up with an overture to Kashmiris, this time at a rally in Madhya Pradesh. Finally, the silence, that silence, had been broken. What they were referring to was the Prime Minister’s insistence on maintaining a mauna vrat in the midst of a series of atrocities against ethnic minorities that had unfolded across the length and breadth of the country. Of course, this was completely in sync with the Prime Minister’s physical capabilities, being an ardent practitioner of yoga. The problem was that this was the same Prime Minister who had, very recently, strutted up to the well of the US Congress and delivered a jaw-dropping speech exalting the contributions of the Indian diaspora to the American economy, even managing to whip out a passage from Walt Whitman in the process. Back in India, however, his external affairs minister got into a tangle, unable to tell off Mahasweta Devi from Asha Purna Devi, and then there was the silence, that silence.

With the silence out of the way, Indian democracy has been restored. Or so the centrists think. But, considering that aeons have passed – in the sense of political time – since the atrocities occurred and the Prime Minister’s statements, it is safe to say that this was a studied and calculated move. So, it is legitimate to ask the following questions – Where did the Prime Minister issue these statements? What did he say? When did he issue the statements?

Actually, the first question is better posed as – Where did he not issue the statements? Neither Gau Rakshaks nor Kashmir was mentioned a single time during the Prime Minister’s latest Mann ki baat session. The core issue discussed in that session was the delivery of prompt public health services to pregnant women. Laudable, of course, but considering that Mann ki baat reaches more people than a statement issued at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Delhi or a political rally in Madhya Pradesh, and has been the Prime Minister’s preferred form of political communication with “the people of India,” emphasizing development and eschewing any reference to the plight of ethnic minorities basically implies that the Prime Minister was telling the latter – you are “Indians” if you demand development, but “anti-nationals” if you ask for justice. It is hard to call Mann ki baat a political transaction – it is, after all, a monologue delivered by the Prime Minister – but, in as much as it is, it falls squarely in the domain of what Partha Chatterjee, echoing Antonio Gramsci, has famously described as “political society.” In Chatterjee’s creative reading of Gramsci, elements of democratic political practice may emerge from the quotidian activities of political society.[1] Mann ki baat, however, offers no such hope to ethnic minorities. Its sole purpose is to inform and demobilize.

Moving on to the content of the Prime Minister’s statements, consider what was said “the azaadi (freedom) that every Indian feels, Kashmir can feel too.” Now juxtapose this with what was not said, “the azaadi (freedom) that every Indian feels, Kashmir deserves to feel too.” This is a perfect illustration of what Manas Bhattacharjee calls the territorialization of hope.[2] The insinuation here is loud and clear. If they so desired, Kashmiris too could enjoy freedom on our terms, but as long as they ask for freedom on their own terms, pellets are all they will get because every pellet has India’s territorial integrity written on it. In the same vein, the statement on the Gau Rakshaks completely elides the role of the Prime Minister’s brotherhood in abetting their actions. Being crooks by night, and crusaders by day, the latter are obviously “pre-political,” and therefore, ineligible to be RSS agents.

The timing of these statements is what deserves most attention, in this author’s view. It is no simple coincidence that the statements have come in the wake of the historic passage of the GST bill in the Rajya Sabha. As an aside, it is worth noting that the quality of deliberations over the bill in social media outlets is itself symptomatic of the iron hold that the Prime Minister has over contemporary Indian politics. His core support base has hailed the bill’s passage as a great policy success. Observers on the left have responded with equally context-free speculations about the regressiveness of the bill. Neither side has shown the intellectual discipline required to sweat it out over the specifics of the bill, such as the fact that a certain proportion of the product basket that is used to calculate the consumer price index will be kept outside the purview of the bill. What proportion is excluded? What proportion is included? Why and with what general equilibrium effects? One is hard pressed to find any systematic analyses of these issues in the public sphere. But, this is precisely the polarized terrain on which India’s Prime Minister thrives, a terrain that he has had no small part in shaping to its current denouement. He understands that the passage of the GST Bill has already fortified the support of the 31% that voted him to power in 2014. This group may still bristle at the notion of their beloved Narendrabhai calling Gau Rakshaks criminals or ostensibly empathizing with Kashmiris, but with the GST bill, and by extension, India’s passage to a miraculous 9% growth trajectory secured, the hurt will pinch less, for sure. Add to that the voting population that feels “relieved,” and the political calculations behind the statements become obvious.

What then is Narendra Modi’s Mann ki baat? In the rare moments when he does not read from a script, either prepared by himself or his legions of sycophants, what emerges is a mind steeped in a vigilante ethos. One such instance was his tweet following Smriti Irani’s now infamous defense in parliament of her decision to order arrests of JNU students on bogus sedition charges: “Do hear this speech by @smritiirani.…Satyamev Jayate.”

Indian democracy will not transform Narendra Modi. Unlike the wishy-washy liberalisms and illiberalisms of his predecessors in the PMO, his is a most resolute and muscular type of commitment to Hindutva and pro-big business economics, forged through years of indoctrination in RSS shakhas. Where he waves his hand, once in a while, is on the issue of strategy and tactics. The real question is what will remain of Indian democracy after Narendra Modi.


[1] Partha Chatterjee, “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India,” Economic & Political Weekly, April 19, 2008.

[2] Manash Bhattacharjee, “Even Hope has Strict Borders,” The Wire, August 2, 2016.


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Subhasish Ray Written by:

I am an Assistant Professor in Political Science at the National University of Singapore. My research and teaching interests are in comparative politics, with an empirical focus on Asia. When I am not consumed by professional political science, I like to write about popular music and politics in India.

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