The limits to a Prime Minister’s alibis

This coloumn was first published in The Wire http://thewire.in/2015/10/24/the-alibis-of-a-chief-executive-13863/
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Amongst democracies, only in India is it possible that an elected Prime Minister has a set of fool-proof alibis that protect him from taking responsibility for the events taking place in various parts of the country. Our federal structure, the actions of so-called ‘fringe elements’, or unruly coalition partners – one or the other is deployed time and again to insulate the chief executive of the country from all blame. Therefore, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks up only to ask how the Centre is responsible for the shameful events in Dadri or Mumbai, it comes as a surprise to none.

Many analysts have rightly compared US President Barack Obama’s outright condemnations of every event of gun violence with his good friend Narendra Modi’s obfuscatory remarks that came after a long spell of studied silence. Obama has scant influence over the states, and has been constantly besieged by a virulent opposition. His political opponents have not only made constant personal attacks, but also blocked key legislation at every opportunity. Now the reasons for political opposition to Narendra Modi in India are entirely different, but surely, there are lessons he can learn from Obama’s story. The duty of a chief executive is to be a statesman and do what is right. If Modi keeps silent, or indulges in blame-shifting, this is telling only of how compromised the office of the Prime Minister is because of the man who occupies it.

One doesn’t have to look as far as the US to find models of public propriety. In a young republic, way back in 1956, Lal Bahadur Shastri tendered his resignation, accepting moral responsibility for the successive rail accidents in Mehboob Nagar and Ariyalur. This is the kind of moral certitude that would be met with derision today. Even demands to fix responsibility on individuals are doggedly stone-walled.

In India, an entire industry is busy creating and waving alibis to defend the Prime Minister from various misdemeanours by his associates. Thus, when the Chief Minister of Haryana, M L Khattar candidly lays down conditions under which Muslims can live in India as Muslims, we are urged to overlook the fact that he belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party and has been a life-long member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). We were promised a no-nonsense chief executive who would put disruptive hardline elements in their place. So far, the only signs we have seen of this has been in the dogged pursuit of activist NGOs and fact-seeking RTI activists.

Narendra Modi has not only asserted his membership of the Sangh in the past but also played his part in agitating crowds against Muslims over various issues such as population control, cow slaughter, terrorism, etc. When a mob attacks a man and murders him on a patently Hindutva-wadi agenda, we are advised to ask questions of the chief minister of the state, since law and order is a state subject. When RTI activists and protesting artists are probed by the Intelligence Bureau, it is still not clear who should be held responsible. When the Union Minister for Tourism and Culture, Mahesh Sharma talks of ‘cultural cleansing’ of institutions, what he thinks girls can or cannot do, and finally, defends the mob that murdered a man in Dadri, we are expected to look the other way and not ask the Prime Minister any tough questions. And when questions are asked – as they should be – the alibis are lined up immediately.

What good is a ‘strong’ Prime Minister who cannot control a member of his own cabinet? While on the subject, we must know who exactly the Prime Minister can control. Right now, it appears as if all that the Prime Minister can control are a set of senior bureaucrats, and the schedule of his foreign trips. For everything else, we must look elsewhere. Where else are we to look at, when we were promised this would be a Modi sarkar, not a BJP sarkar and definitely not a RSS sarkar?

Meanwhile, the grand vision of development increasingly appears to be a mirage, an El Dorado. Here perhaps the Prime Minister cannot be directly held responsible for the slow pace of change. Why then, did some of us choose to buy into the exaggerated promises? Is it fair to at least expect that the Prime Minister and his team would busy themselves in the task of addressing the intractable problems of development facing us today? The alibi presented here is the 60 years of misrule by the Prime Minister’s predecessors. How long will this continue to wash?

It is then a success of miraculous proportions that not just the legion of followers, but many otherwise right-thinking citizens have bought into the alibis that Modi hides behind. The credit for cultivating this mass base, and a sprinkling of public intellectuals sympathetic to the Prime Minister and his ideology must go to both Narendra Modi and the RSS. But ever so often, they appear in the public eye, to be defending the indefensible. Surely our politically astute Prime Minister must be aware that you cannot fool all the people all the time? After all, he just has to look up his own speeches in the run-up to May 2014 to realise that no alibi can last forever.

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