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.”

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