New Delhi: In the aftermath of the Sushma Swarna-inspired, Vasundhara Raje-supported Lalit Modi controversy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be seething with anger. But so far, he has done a pretty good job of hiding his emotions. In fact, some might argue that he has done it a bit too well -- seeming detached -- and that isn't always a good thing.
With Modi's Mann ki Baat being scheduled for 1100 am on Sunday morning, there was a hope that he would perhaps finally break the self-imposed silence on the issue but instead, towards the end of the talk show, he only took a jibe at all those who were expecting him to make a political statement by saying, 'Don't expect me to use the show to make big political statements... I do that everyday. Here I want to talk about things that are close to my heart.'
One would have thought corruption, rather the urge to rid the country of it, was pretty close to the PM's heart as well. Nevertheless, it gave the Congress more ammo to go after the PM -- who has now been rechristened 'Maun Modi.' Veteran Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad "was disappointed" and held a press conference soon after the Prime Minister's Mann ki Baat radio address calling him a "Merchant of Dreams" and nothing else.
"The biggest promise PM Shri Modi made was to bring back Black Money to India, we request the PM to keep his promise," he said, "While the PM identifies himself as a world leader, talks about the world, did he write a letter to bring back Lalit Modi to India?"
Nabi further added: "Khud kiye tumne apnee deewaron ke suraag, ab koi jhaank ke dekhen to kyun shikayat kee?"
So far, Modi has shown himself to be a master of PR. He wants to be in touch with things at the ground level, he tracks things on the net, he congratulates India's achievers, he tweets out his thoughts, regularly airs his 'Mann Ki Baat' and even launched a Narendra Modi app recently to speak to his countrymen directly. But what good is all of that when he hasn't shown enough concern and anger about the biggest scandal his government has been hit by to date.
When Nestle and Maggi didn't respond after the recent reports that lead and MSG were found in their noodles, experts termed their response as robotic and complacent, and it hit them hard. Can Modi's response to the Sushma-Raje-Modi controversy be termed similarly poor?
Good PR would have meant Modi coming out and address all Indians, assuring them that there would be no cover-up; assuring them that he would root corruption out no matter how 'big' the guilty party is; assuring that impropriety isn't proper by his standards. Even if he needed time to find out to figure out whether the documents are authentic, he should have been able to do that by now, it has been two weeks since the scandal first broke in India and even longer since the Sunday Times in UK first wrote about it.
Instead, his silence allowed the opposition parties and Indians in general to speculate.
Does he have something to lose? Why is he backtracking? What happened to all his promises? Is this transparency? All in all, it paints him in a not-too-pleasant light. Just a word from him and the opposition would have had no plank to stand on and it would have convinced everyone that we have a PM who isn't all talk -- at least when it comes to corruption.
As Firstpost editor R Jagannathan wrote, "The time to break the silence is at hand, and Modi should now speak up - and act."
He also pointed out that though the PM can speak and act when it involves his own cabinet colleagues - Sushma Swaraj and Smriti Irani - he cannot do so in the case of Rajasthan CM. "In a federal polity, it is not the job of the PM to act against Chief ministers, who are independently elected and accountable to the electorate and the law separately. The fact that Raje belongs to his own party does not over-rule federalism. Just as the PM cannot act against Akhilesh Yadav for the unspeakable things happening in UP, or against Mamata Banerjee for the violence and scams in her state, he cannot do so against Vasundhara Raje either."
Indeed, what might be bad PR may also be good politics. If Modi says anything at the moment, he is committing himself in the public eye and refusal to follow through will hit him hard. By not saying anything; by sending Sushma Swaraj out of the country, he is hoping that the storm will eventually blow over. There are big political advantages to this -- if he acts against Sushma or Raje or Smriti Irani -- he will show himself to be a man who takes no prisoners. That isn't something that the allies of the NDA or even the other leaders in his party will take to very calmly.
Our political system isn't going to clean itself overnight. It will leave many other 'corrupt,' 'helpful' leaders feeling nervous and that wouldn't help the BJP or Modi greatly given that the Bihar elections are just around the corner.
On Saturday, Firstpost's Akshaya Mishra wrote, "while the party suffers loss of credibility, the only person who is likely to come out unscathed and stronger from the latest development is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. By letting the party to take a call on Vasundhara, he has separated himself from the matter. His Manmohan Singh-like silence may have invited ridicule from the media, but it actually does his image more good than bad."
And while parts of that may be true, there is no doubt that if he had indeed promised to act then to many in India, he would have shown himself to be the true antithesis of the Congress and proved that their decision to vote him and the BJP to power was indeed a correct one. But for now, everyone lies in wait, hoping that at some point the anger will boil over.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group.