India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has styled himself as a great communicator. But in moments of national tension, the Hindu nationalist leader invariably has little to say.
In the eyes of his critics, he has again failed to speak up, this time after two brutal cases that have rattled India: the alleged rape of a teenage girl, and the rape and killing of an 8-year-old Muslim girl.
Growing public anger over the cases has seen thousands of angry protesters take to the streets as the country’s opposition applies pressure to Mr Modi, who remained silent for days after the details of the crimes emerged.
In Mr Modi’s four years as prime minister, Hindu right-wingers – the base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have been involved in rapes, lynchings, murders and other criminal acts. Mr Modi has largely refused to comment on these incidents, which his critics say makes him complicit in bringing about “this terrifying state of affairs.”
A group of 49 retired bureaucrats who had once served in key posts in federal or state governments used that phrase in a heated letter delivered to Mr Modi on Sunday. Even after the two rapes – one allegedly by a BJP legislator in Uttar Pradesh who has now been arrested, the other allegedly by Kashmiri Hindu men who were subsequently defended by Hindu right-wing groups – Mr Modi had “chosen to remain silent, breaking your silence only when public outrage...reached a point when you could no longer ignore it,” the letter read.
Before Mr Modi came to power, he served as the chief minister of Gujarat for more than a decade, at a time when the Congress party – now in the opposition – formed the government. As a series of corruption scams tumbled out of that government, Mr Modi frequently mocked the then-prime minister, Manmohan Singh, for his silence, using the Hindi word “maun” for “mute” to dub him “Maunmohan Singh”.
Throughout his own 2014 election campaign and afterwards, Mr Modi promised to be more open and communicative than Mr Singh. He used his personal Twitter feed, where he boasts 42 million followers, to post a series of messages and greetings. On Mann Ki Baat, his monthly radio show, Mr Modi shares his thoughts about social or economic matters. Through his eponymous app, he pushes mass messages and emails designed to convey his policy ideas.
But in other ways, Mr Modi has become far more inaccessible and tight-lipped than his predecessor.
While Mr Singh held a number of press conferences, Mr Modi has not scheduled a single one during his tenure. His only major interviews have been a few carefully scripted appearances with star anchors on television shows, and questions put to the prime minister are regularly vetted.
His public statements after disturbing events have been similarly short and generic. When he finally spoke out on Friday about the two rape cases, he did so as part of a larger political speech in Delhi. He referred to the rapes as “incidents being discussed for the past two days”, and he promised that “our daughters will definitely get justice”.
He made no reference to the fact that a lawmaker from his own party had been accused of rape in Uttar Pradesh. Nor did he mention that two BJP ministers in Kashmir had joined other Hindu nationalist groups in protesting the arrest of eight Hindu men on charges of committing or abetting rape in connection with the 8-year-old girl’s death.
Mr Modi has previously remained silent after similarly brutal cases. In 2015, after a mob of Hindu right-wingers beat up and lynched a Muslim man because they suspected he had beef in his house, he refrained from commenting for eight days. When he finally spoke, he offered just five sentences about communal harmony and brotherhood, as well as the need for Muslims and Hindus “to fight poverty together”.
The Indian leader has refused to disown or criticise members of his party, nor Hindu groups allied to the BJP, who have made controversial or incendiary remarks.
In January, a BJP legislator in Uttar Pradesh claimed that Hindus were in danger of being swamped by a rising Muslim population. Another leader warned, last year, that Muslims must vote for the BJP or “face difficulties.” Mr Modi did not respond to these remarks.
On Twitter, Mr Modi follows several accounts that post anti-Muslim messages, or that tweet rape or death threats to critics of the BJP. In 2015, when a Twitter user named Amitesh Singh spread a false rumor about Muslims taking a train of Hindus hostage and urged the murder of 3,000 Muslims in retaliation, his account was deleted. Mr Singh was a member of a youth organization affiliated with the BJP, and Mr Modi was one of his followers on Twitter.
In the run-up to India’s next general election in 2019, the nature of political rhetoric is only set to become more charged. The BJP’s leaders have proven themselves to be inflammatory in attack. If Mr Modi chooses not to rein them in with his own words, he will be tacitly encouraging them. His silence will, in fact, speak volumes.