When a dentist told a 'silent' Prime Minister to open his mouth
Reading through a newspaper column, it was abundantly clear that the indictment of the Prime Minister for being ‘silent’ was exceptionally strong.
Besides being roundly condemned, the top elected official of the country was being ruthlessly caricatured.
There were below-the-belt barbs as well. A particularly caustic joke that the column cited was an imaginary date that the Indian Prime Minister had with a dentist. “At least in my clinic, please open your mouth,” the dentist told the seated Prime Minister.
It is not known if the Prime Minister kept quiet even in the face of such an uncharitable broadside. But the column made no bones of the public ridicule that were being generously heaped on him.
“More and more, he has become a tragic figure in our history,” the column quoted a political historian, who went on to accuse the Prime Minister of ‘timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty’. “That lack of leadership, that lack of boldness, the lack of will — that really shocked us,” a top executive of a global investment firm said.
The denunciation of the Prime Minister was downright total, when the column jokingly referred to apparent conversations happening at meetings and conferences. Attendees are being urged to put their phones into ‘PM Mode,’ it remarked.
The column left one to wonder whether to pity or loathe the Prime Minister. After all, he seemed to be a self-made man with an extremely modest background, who made it to the top only through dogged grit and determined gumption.
“Born into a small-time trader’s family in a village… walking miles to school every day and studying by the light of a kerosene lamp…” so narrated the column the Prime Minister’s personal journey that we all ought to find extremely inspirational.
Reading the column titled “India’s ‘silent’ prime minister becomes a tragic figure” by one Simon Denyer, one could be forgiven if he or she felt a tinge of sadness too. The ending did not simply seem right for an otherwise enterprising man who had excelled in the face of extreme odds and reached such dizzying heights. To suffer such a sharp turn in popular standing seemed cruel, deserving our compassion.
But wait. Why was I being so sentimental?
After all, the column I had been reading was from September, 2012. It had appeared in the Washington Post, when the Congress-led UPA was in power at the Centre in India. And the Prime Minister the column lampooned as tragically silent was Dr Manmohan Singh.
The blame should squarely be on the internet, for throwing up on my laptop a piece from the past, which had nothing to do with the present, and senselessly sowing seeds of confusion in my mind.
But here I was, reading the column and scratching my head in disbelief. The similarities between then and now were so striking that even a hard nosed journalist like me could be tricked into believing that what I was reading was from today. The column could easily be juxtaposed with what is happening in India now, the name of Manmohan Singh could be replaced with that of Narendra Modi, and it would still read contemporary and current.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, goes an old saying. It held spectacularly true for the piece in the Washington Post as well.
If Manmohan Singh was generally found to be silent in the face of sundry crises – scams and arrogance to policy paralysis – in the final years of the UPA government and pilloried for it, Narendra Modi, the incumbent, could also be faulted for very much the same reason.
The context though is different. This time, the cause for grief is the continuing ethnic strife in Manipur and the Prime Minister’s reluctance to speak about it.
India faces a myriad of problems, including lawlessness in the form of cow vigilantism to rampant majoritarianism that has minorities in a state of siege. But there seems to be no greater a threat at the moment than the anarchic violence that is sweeping Manipur and threatening our very idea of a melting pot that we call India.
Manipur has been in the midst of a mayhem since May. Hundreds have died and thousands have been left homeless. Families have been torn apart and women defiled as heavily-armed communities high on hatred battle it out, partitioning the predominantly hilly state left virtually rudderless by an administration that has all but forfeited the ability to administer.
Yet, the Prime Minister is silent.
He spoke up once, only for a few minutes, once a video of women being paraded naked, groped, and later gangraped by a mob surfaced, triggering nationwide outrage. He has been silent since.
Meanwhile, Parliament has been stalled with a belligerent Opposition insisting that Modi speak up. He has not. What we have instead is a raucous din raised by the Opposition over his silence.
It took me back to the Washington Post column. I read and reread it, only to be reminded all over again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
(The writer is the former Group editor-in-chief of Outlook and author of ‘Editor Missing: The Media in Today’s India’)
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