Narendra Modi’s unsettling silence on the disturbing events of the past month

30 June 2014

The “story”—as some journalists in the newsroom would say—is often hidden in silences, in unspoken words. In our contemporary hyper-communicative age, it often lies in un-tweeted tweets and un-posted posts. Words unsaid are often more potent than words uttered; the hushed silence is sometimes louder that the sounds of politics.

Over the past few years we became used to the esoteric political culture of silence nurtured by leaders of the erstwhile ruling Congress. The former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, pledged himself to the sanctity and comfort of a decade of near silence; Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, appeared wordless most of the time; her son, Rahul, broke his protracted and confounding silence only at intermittent intervals—and that too at his own peril.

All in all, the past decade could justifiably be defined as one of official silence, even as the noise outside—in television studios, newspaper columns and even on the streets—peaked continuously. The equilibrium shared by the loftiness of the silence and the pedestrian-ness of the noise was disrupted with the anointment of Narendra Modi, India’s sixteenth prime minister. Moving to the centre stage of Indian politics in the aftermath of what seemed like the loudest political event in ten years, Modi pitched himself as the speaking, tweeting, communicating prime minister.

After Manmohan Singh—who many detractors dubbed “Maun” (silent) Mohan—we now have a prime minister who “speaks” compulsively—through actual speech as much as through tweets about saree and shawl diplomacy and other mundane matters. From hologram rallies to tea parties, Modi arrived with a promise of shattering that official culture of silence. “India has won! Bharat ki vijay. Achche din aane wale hain (Good days are about to come)”—this was his famous tweet, which apparently became the most retweeted tweet in India’s Twitter history. If Modi’s tweets and speeches more generally are signifiers of the moments he considers important, is it not reasonable to ask what constitutes significance in Modi’s worldview?

If any subject has sparked anxiety and outrage in equal measure in recent months, it is gender and communal violence. These also happen to be subjects on which the new prime minister apparently does not have much to say. When a wordy prime minister like Modi falls silent on these critical issues, then silence itself becomes a kind of noise. As the American theorist Susan Sontag once wrote: “‘Silence’ never ceases to imply its opposite and to demand on its presence. Just as there can’t be ‘up’ without ‘down’ or ‘left’ without ‘right,’ so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence. Not only does silence exist in a world full of speech and other sounds, but any given silence takes its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound.”

It is not necessary to valourise silence, so much as understand what it means. Decoding everyday silence is not easy. What does it mean when Narendra Modi’s communicative powers fail him? What does it mean when the media, which shrieks for accountability, stops short of interrogating some special kinds of refusal to speak?

These days, newsrooms are abuzz with stories of the Modi government’s gag order. Ministers have been asked to communicate as little as possible about matters that matter, and more on matters that do not matter. The prime minister himself is careful in selecting the subjects that he wants to comment on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his selective choices mostly deal with non-controversial generalities or his own achievements. Sometimes they are even peevish. For instance, in his blog post on the completion of one month in office, Modi complained that his government did not have the luxury of a “honeymoon period” that previous governments enjoyed. He pointed to the resistance from “within” and “without” to the “positive change” his government was trying to bring. An odd charge to level, indeed, given the fact that by and large the media has been singing praises of Modi’s punctilious attention to detail (some of which could actually be interpreted as controlling his cabinet colleagues), his hard work and the long hours spent in office.

So, when and where does Modi prefer silence to communication? Here are two telling examples that could be signifiers of deeper meaning. Not so long ago, two teenage girls were raped and hanged in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. In Meghalaya, a woman’s head was blown off by insurgents after they raped her. Somewhere on the outskirts of Mumbai, a woman bus conductor was stripped by a male commuter. Modi did not tweet about these ghastly incidents. Nor did he have much to say after a mob led by the Hindu Rashtra Sena beat to death the 24-year-old Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh in Pune as he was on his way home.

In some sense Modi’s culture of silence is just a chip off the old political block, which includes not reacting to incidents of gender or communal violence, horrifying as they may be. Words are spoken only if there is obvious electoral capital to be made. When a paramedical student was brutally gang raped in Delhi two years ago, Manmohan Singh remained silent too. A deadly quiet surrounded 7 Race Course and 10 Janpath as incensed protesters took over the capital, as it shut down, and as people breached the tight security cordons of VVIP areas. By the time the usually incommunicado Congress leaders summoned the guts to face the tear-gassed, water-cannoned and thrashed protesters, their tenuous link with the government had snapped. Yet it can perhaps be argued that Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi hailed from an elite stock of politicians who made silence their leitmotif; not talking to the people was their style. They couldn’t help it.

But official silence currently follows a strikingly different template. Since Narendra Modi has marketed himself as the very antithesis of the model of silent leadership, his refusal to comment has to be taken seriously as a departure from the silence of the Congress’s politics. Why has our current prime minister, who is a 24x7 communicator, suddenly fallen silent on matters that are making front-page news, have been headlined in the international press, and have worked the Twitterati up into a tizzy? Would it rather not have been in the fitness of things for the new dispensation under Modi to have spoken or tweeted on the disturbing incidents taking place across the country? True, in his reply to the debate on the president’s address, Modi did briefly address rape. But this response was strategic at best, one where he suggested it is better to keep quiet than “psychoanalyse” rape. While that reference to political infighting over the Badaun rapes played on the common trope of protecting the dignity of women, more recently Modi has once again chosen silence over words in the case of rape allegations against union minister of state Nihal Chand.

In order for it to become part of the political and social fabric, silence has to be heard and not just have its absence noted. In other words, silence is both present and absent as an indicator of positions or statements that could be political, social or even emotional. Given the range of work that exists around the enigmatic metaphor of silence, not perceiving silence as a signifier of larger concepts and strategies is impossible. Like speech, silence too exists within a context. It gains tangibility, acquires enigma, creates confusion. The problem of Narendra Modi’s maunvrat (observing of silence) is complicated in a way Manmohan’s wasn’t. Perceived to be remote controlled, the latter’s refusal to speak was merely an act of following orders. But Modi is his own master.

According to Foucault, “there is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorised, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” It follows from this that Modi’s silence is that of a man who can speak but chooses not to. But such refusal (as opposed to the inability of the oppressed to speak at all) is a kind of communicative tactic. It is what leads him to caution ministers against leaking information. In line with all the connections commentators have made between Modi and fascism, the gag orders issued by his government amount to a panic about information leaking in a manner that cannot be controlled by Modi himself. Instead, the preferred model is one where the government seems to benefit from the miniscule pieces of news that seemingly leak without a source. The controversy around Gopal Subramanium’s appointment is a case in point.

At the same time, we can also reasonably argue that Modi’s silence on rape and communal violence stems from his powerlessness to speak on the issue. In this sense he cannot speak. But how is this possible? Isn’t Modi all powerful and unafraid? Perhaps not, for despite his massive mandate the prime minister is powerless to speak on communal or gender violence because his landslide victory in the Hindi heartland and elsewhere, to a large extent, was propelled by communal polarisation and the consolidation of the majority Hindu vote bank. The spectre of 2002, which included unimaginable brutalities against women, and the facts of Hindu consolidation and repressed violence haunt Modi’s refusal to speak. By speaking on these issues—which he is not entirely free from—he might implicate himself in a past he tries constantly to escape. Therefore, the fact that he chooses to remain silent says a lot.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.