Michael Scott, played to iconic perfection by Steve Carrell, in The Office is the archetypal bad leader – his defining characteristic being an utter lack of accountability. Whenever Scott’s branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company does something noteworthy, he is all too eager to take credit, even if he had nothing to do with the success. But whenever there is a failure or bad news to deliver, he looks for loyal cronies to serve as scapegoats, or, if push comes to shove, blames it on outside elements such as the “corporate”.
It is alarming, therefore, that the man who leads a diverse population of 1.2 billion bears so much resemblance to this fictional archetype. Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept into power with an overwhelming majority in 2014. His, and the BJP’s, campaigning in those elections was designed to incite strong emotions – lots of flamboyant speeches which contained tall promises, and of course, the iconic slogan, ‘Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar‘ (This time, a Modi government). For millions, Modi’s oratory and innovative online presence quickly established him as a refreshing, much-needed change from the quiet, reticent Dr Manmohan Singh. Modi was going to be the leader who would talk to his people, to others about the country. He would not cower in silence.
At least that’s what the nation was promised.
So when a man who loves to talk so much stays mum on key national issues, that silence is nothing short of damning. As the New York Times editorial board noted in the aftermath of the Kathua rape case, Modi’s long silence then left a “hollowing impact” on Indian women.
For at least the past year, India has been subject to great socio-economic volatility, and there has been no lack of scams and jumlas. As the rupee plummets, oil prices skyrocket and a minister resigns in the wake of sexual assault allegations; as the Rafale controversy continues to hit headlines and the religious divide deepens across the country, the popular confidence that this government enjoyed is now being tested. In such a climate of uncertainty, the people of this country look to the man they once believed in, but he stays silent.
Intriguing and almost mysterious as it may be, such a sudden loss in the otherwise voluble prime minister’s ability to speak warrants serious debate. Three possibilities offer themselves:
The first is that this is just an identity crisis for a man who doesn’t know how to deal with failure in the public eye, and is hoping to hide behind his cabinet as loyalists such as Ravi Shankar Prasad and Nirmala Sitharaman take the the heat instead. Maybe once the newest storm has passed, Modi will emerge from his shell and plaster his face onto massive billboards on highways again.
The next possible explanation is that such scams and mishaps don’t fit BJP’s ‘script’. Contemporary politics is all about narrative and optics. If Modi speaks out on these issues, his name will naturally be associated with the aforementioned issues. Let’s take the Rafale scam for example. The opposition and media had questioned the government, the prime minister, and to an extent, the defence minister. But the main subject of the attacks, especially from the opposition, was Modi. The government responded solely through statements presented by Sitharaman and former defence minister Arun Jaitley.
The subsequent rebuttal jibes dealt by the opposition and media that followed were all aimed at Sitharaman; meanwhile, Modi slowly crept out of the picture. While this is an intelligent strategy used by BJP president Amit Shah and the party’s leadership, it once again raises the question of Modi’s accountability. Sure, this silence and image-upkeep is good to ensure Modi still wins support in the 2019 elections, but isn’t the prime minister of a country answerable to his citizens first and then his party?
This links to the last possible explanation, which is even more alarming. It could just be that our prime minister just doesn’t care. He doesn’t think he is answerable to the people anymore, and is beginning to take his position of power for granted. While Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have buckled up in their role as the opposition in the last year, popular support for BJP hasn’t wavered much.
Majority of the state governments across the nation remain saffron, and in such a position of power, it’s possible that a leader may start to believe he is no longer answerable to the very people who elected him in the first place. This explanation is likely to be true, as he only remains selectively silent. Modi still tweets from his main Twitter account about his activities on ‘auspicious days’, but remains silent when former leaders of foreign countries make claims about his integrity as a negotiator.
While Jaitley and Sitharaman are an important part of the government, they never have and never will be the face. The people of this country voted for Modi, not for the cabinet, so comments from cabinet members will never be enough. As a first time voter in 2019, I want to vote for a leader who is answerable to me. If Prime Minister Modi continues to stay silent on matters of great importance to the country, that vote may not go to him after all, regardless of how many newspaper front covers don his image.
Featured image credit: Reuters