It’s not quite Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but there are definitely two Narendra Modis. There’s VideshiModi and DesiModi and the two seem to cut from different cloth.
When Narendra Modi was asked in London about India becoming an increasingly intolerant space, he did not bristle defensively. He could have. The question was phrased to attack. It accepted as established truth that India, the entire country, was an “increasingly intolerant” space and asked Mr Modi to explain it.
Modi was forthright and categorical.
After some standard genuflection at the ideals of Buddha and Gandhi, he said, “India does not accept intolerance even if it is one or two or three incidents. Whether a single incident is significant for a country of 1.25 billion people does not matter. For us every incident is serious. We do not tolerate it. The law acts strongly and will continue to do so.”
Now what stopped Mr Modi from saying this in all those weeks after the beef-lynching? Does Narendra Modi need to go to Westminster in order to do his job in Delhi? Or more cynically, is he free to go back to being the Prime Minister of all of India now that he is not longer the BJP’s campaigner-in-chief in Bihar and the dog whistles to the party faithful can be put away for another election?
Contrast Mr Modi’s statement in London to the only thing he said in India to Indians after the Dadri mob incident. He told the Ananda Bazar Patrika that the Mohammad Akhlaq lynching was “sad and unwarranted” and then immediately washed his hands off the incident by saying defensively “What is the Central government’s relation with these incidents?”
Mr Modi, let it be noted, did not tell the BBC reporter that this was an Uttar Pradesh law and order problem. He did not dismiss the events as just stray incidents. He did not see it as some “news trader” conspiracy cooked up by what his colleague V K Singh calls “presstitutes”. He did not call it an “accident” as his minister Mahesh Sharma did. In London, Modi had no problem doing the job he was elected to do – speak up as a national leader on issues of national importance.
The BBC reporter could have, if a follow-up had been allowed, asked Modi about his colleagues who have fanned the flames. He could have asked why if “every” incident is “serious”, he did not step in to publicly reprimand the likes of MP Yogi Adityanath who were fanning the flames.
Or his fellow MP Sakshi Maharaj who said 'Yug badal raha hai. Ish desh ke neta ko badalna padega. Nehin to chaurahain pe pitna padega. (Times are changing. Leaders have to change their mind-set. Otherwise, they will get beaten up in public places) after a Jammu and Kashmi MLA got beaten up for organizing a “beef party”. Or local BJP leader Nawab Singh Nagar who called the members of the lynch mob “innocent children”.
But more than anything anyone said, what had been most deafening has been the Prime Minister’s silence. That is why 120 academics published an open letter in The Guardian alleging “Mr. Modi’s complicit silence in these horrifying acts bodes ill for the future of India.” The hysteria about a 'Hindu Taliban' in Delhi is unwarranted and over the top and does injustice to the real victims of the Taliban. Whether intolerance is actually on the rise in India is open to debate and should be debated with facts. What is not debatable has been Modi’s silence.
Mr Modi might have privately asked his party’s hotheads to lay off but in public the Prime Minister appeared perfectly willing to tolerate their incendiary remarks. If anything, whether the drumbeat of “increasing intolerance” is a media-manufactured revolt of not, there has been clear and demonstrable increasing tolerance of hateful speech. Whatever was the Prime Minister’s mann ki baat , it stayed very firmly inside his mann. Had he spoken up then, chances are the BBC reporter would never even have asked this question now.
It would be tempting to read everything now through the lens of the defeat in Bihar and discover a humbler Modi. But Modi abroad has always been a different Modi, assertive but not aggressive. He has every right to be prickly in the West. He faces more protesters there than at rallies in India, protesters who call him Hitler. Memories of visa denials should rankle. But Modi has shown that as far as America or UK are concerned, he can be more than gracious and not bear past grudges.
This time in London he did something else that was unprecedented. Just a few weeks ago when African leaders descended on Delhi for the India-Africa Forum Summit it was left to the visiting dignitaries to remember the role Jawaharlal Nehru played in forging bonds with Africa while the Indian Prime Minister and his External Affairs minister pointedly chose not to even mention his name. In London, Mr. Modi chose to remember how several of his “distinguished predecessors from Jawaharlal Nehru to Dr. Manmohan Singh” passed through the doors of British institutions. It was a gracious gesture and a statesman-like nod towards those whose ideologies he might not espouse. It’s in marked contrast to those in India like Giriraj Singh whose standard response to anyone who disagrees with Modi’s policy is #GoToPakistan.
Now the question is whether this avatar of Modi will last once his plane lands in Delhi or whether this Modi is only meant for foreign media consumption. It would be a real pity if Narendra Modi is at his prime ministerial best only when he is out of India.
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