Who said ‘Speech is silver, silence golden’? The proverb is attributed to ancient Egypt, to Zen Buddhism and to Thomas Carlyle. A wag claimed that the copyright now belonged to Mr Narendra Modi.
Through the election campaign, I marveled at Mr Modi’s ability to work the crowd to a frenzy of support with his mastery over the spoken word. His team came up with clever ideas, hard-hitting arguments and brilliant turns-of-the-phrase. But it was Mr Modi’s oratory that held the crowd spellbound. He seemed to have an answer to everything, nothing fazed him, and towards the end of the campaign, he even took the brave step of granting one-on-one interviews. By that time, of course, he had stitched up a victory.
Mr Modi’s style of communication was strictly one way. He spoke, you listened. His points made, he left the stage. No media conferences, no off-the-cuff remarks on the sidelines of an event, no sound bytes. He controlled his communications totally and continued that practice even after becoming Prime Minister.
Voluble and versatile
But Mr Modi spoke a lot and on a lot of subjects and at a lot of places. As Prime Minister, I believe, he has averaged three or four events a week. He has spoken in India and in 26 countries. He has spoken both in Hindi and in English.
He has spoken on many stages, through signed articles, via recorded messages, and through tweets. He has spoken on many subjects—on India’s development to India’s defence, on Clean India to Vibrant India, on Make in India to Skill India, on global terror to climate change, on yoga to yogis.
He was most eloquent when he spoke on corruption and he warmed up to the subject, like no other, when it concerned the alleged corruption during the 10 years of the UPA government. The Prime Minister was the white knight on a silver steed who had come to Delhi to slay the demon of corruption. In his dictionary, “corruption” was a catch-all word that took within its fold impropriety, abuse of authority, conflict of interest, black money, bribes, disproportionate assets and virtually anything that carried a whiff of suspicion. In his book, anyone accused by the BJP of corruption was “presumed guilty until proven otherwise”.
See and hear no evil
Alas, all that is a distant memory. Instead, today we have a Prime Minister who will “see no evil and hear no evil” when it concerns the ministers in his council of ministers or the BJP’s chief ministers or ministers or his friends and fellow swayamsevaks. And because he will see no evil or hear no evil, he will not speak on any of them. Mr Modi’s new armour is silence, his oratory restricted to re-launching ongoing schemes of the UPA. (Latest example: the National Skill Development Mission).
When allegations surfaced against him, Mr Lalit Modi fled to London. He was wanted by the Enforcement Directorate for questioning. He did not appear. His passport was revoked by the ministry of external affairs (MEA), but he managed to stay on in London. He wanted a travel document to enable him to travel and approached his ‘family friend’ Ms Sushma Swaraj. She is no longer a mere friend, she is the minister for external affairs. She wanted to help him on ‘humanitarian grounds’. Ms Swaraj kept the foreign secretary, her ministry and the Indian high commissioner in the dark, but told the British high commissioner that India would have no objection if Britain issued Mr Lalit Modi a travel document. Fact is, it was her nudge that got Mr Lalit Modi a travel document that enabled him to travel the whole world—not only to Portugal to be by the side of his ailing wife.
Many questions, no answers
On these admitted facts, we asked:
1. Why did the minister keep everybody in the dark and speak directly to the British high commissioner? Is it not a case of abuse of authority? Answer: silence.
2. Why did the minister not advise Mr Lalit Modi to apply to the Indian High Commission in London for a temporary travel document but, instead, spoke to the British high commissioner on his behalf? Is it not a case of acting “with favour”, otherwise called favouritism or nepotism? Answer: silence.
3. Mr Lalit Modi’s counsel in the high court in the petition against the cancellation of his passport was the minister’s daughter. The respondent was the MEA. Mr Lalit Modi succeeded. The ministry took a decision not to appeal the judgment (or took no decision). In either situation, the result was the same and the judgment became final. Who took the decision (or took no decision) in the MEA? Since the minister was constructively responsible, was it not her decision? Should not the minister have recused herself from the matter because her daughter was the counsel for Mr Modi? Is it not a case of conflict of interest? Answer: silence.
The Lalit Modi-Sushma Swaraj story has abuse of authority, nepotism and conflict of interest written all over. By the Prime Minister’s earlier silver standard, the case demands the minister’s resignation. But Mr Modi has now switched to the gold standard of silence and hopes that the storm will blow over. Whether it does or does not, it will almost certainly blow away a whole session of Parliament.