Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done it. Over the weekend, he blasted cow vigilantes not once but twice, and called for an end to the persecution of Dalits. This time around, Modi was neither vague nor mealy-mouthed like he was over the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, rapping the persons responsible for the trouble instead of falling back on broad exhortations for peace. He said that self-appointed gau rakshaks are criminals, and he declared that "If you want to shoot anyone, shoot me, not my Dalit brothers."
Now the odd thing is that while Modi is obviously conscious about public anger, international opinion, and what is being said about him in the media, the Prime Minister resents being cornered into speaking about all those issues which expose the serious social and religious problems which have cropped up under his watch.
Modi voiced his irritation at being chided by the media, almost straight off the bat, during his first Townhall on Saturday. He told the audience that some "opinion makers" blamed him for everything that goes wrong in the country, all the way from the panchayat to the state-level.
"It is unfortunate that in our country, some opinion makers will question the Prime Minister if something happens in the panchayat, they will question the Prime Minister if it happens in the nagar-panchayat, if it happens in the zila parishad then they will ask the Prime Minister, if it happens in the nagar-palika then they will ask the Prime Minister, if if it happens in the mahanagar palika then also the PM is answerable, if it happens in the state then also the PM is answerable," Modi said.
"Politically this is okay, for TRPs also this would be okay....," he continued, in response to a question which had no obvious connection to the PM's outburst.
While Modi is certainly not responsible for the failures of the panchayats or the nagar-palikas, he, as the leader of the country, has an undeniable responsibility to respond to events such as Akhlaq's lynching, the violence being unleashed against Dalits, and the heightened violence in Kashmir, which weigh heavily on the country's conscience.
Both what the PM chooses to speak about and what he chooses to be silent about serve as signals. And those signals have impact on the ground -- the swift action now being pursued against self-styled vigilante gau rakshaks in Punjab and Delhi is evidence of this. The imperative is greater when the transgressors are part of the larger family of Hindutva organizations, or the Sangh Parivar, the PM himself belongs to.
When the fragile equilibrium which holds this country together is threatened, the Prime Minister must step in and speak, filling the dangerous void of speculation and doubts. That is the role of a leader and tough as it is, that is the nature of the job that Modi has signed up for.
Unless the PM speaks out, how are people to know that he doesn't agree with all that is being done by his ideological kith and kin. And if he does so only after being goaded, then it looks as if he finally came around to it, kicking and screaming.
No one blames Modi for Akhlaq's lynching or the flogging of the Dalit men in Gujarat, but he cannot evade questions about why is the prevailing atmosphere such that right-wing bullies feel that they can walk up to Muslims and check their lunchbox, even force them to eat urine and cow dung, beat Dalits within an inch of their life, and then upload a video of this terrible crime without any fear of the law.
In the immediate aftermath of Akhlaq's lynching, all that people wanted Modi to do was unequivocally condemn the mob violence against the Muslim ironsmith, say that no one should be killed for what they choose eat, and say that never again would such an incident be repeated on his watch. Instead, what they heard is that the Centre is not to blame.
Contrary to the power which Modi believes that "opinion makers" wield, a sizeable number of Indians would have like to hear what the Prime Minister has to say of his own accord, without being influenced.
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