Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday referred to his critics, who had blamed the government for the current economic slowdown and questioned his policies on demonetisation and the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), saying there were many Shalyas today who spread pessimism and got a good night’s sleep only after spreading gloom and hopelessness. A K Bhattacharya analyses the comment and Modi's decision to retort.
It is not very common for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respond to criticism -- and rarer still that he should choose to compare some of his critics with a character from the Mahabharata.
On Wednesday, Modi attacked his critics, who had blamed the government for the current economic slowdown and questioned his policies on demonetisation and the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST). He said: “There are many Shalyas today… they spread pessimism and get a good night’s sleep only after they spread gloom and hopelessness.”
Who is Shalya? A character from the Mahabharata, he was the ruler of the Madra kingdom. Being the brother of Madri, one of the wives of King Pandu, Shalya was expected to fight for the Pandavas against the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra battle. But on being wooed by the Kauravas, led by Duryodhana, he decided to be with them and became the charioteer of Karna, another warrior who should have been part of the Pandava army but ironically ended up fighting against them.
Who killed Shalya? On the eighteenth day of the Kurukshetra battle, Shalya was nominated to head the Kaurava army and fought valiantly, only to be defeated and later killed by Yudhishthira. Shalya had another tussle with the Pandavas much before the Kurukshetra battle. Just before Arjuna emerged as the winner to qualify as the groom for Draupadi, Shalya was also present there as an aspirant. But he failed to hit the target and lost Draupadi. Peeved by this defeat, Shalya had joined hands with other kings and fought Arjuna, but was defeated in that battle with Bhima coming to Arjun’s rescue.
So, was Modi referring to Arun Shourie or Yashwant Sinha when he described his critics as Shalyas? Sinha is very much part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Indeed, Sinha is a member of the Margdarshak Mandal, a team that Modi had set up in 2014 as a group of elder statesmen of the party to provide guidance and advice to the younger leadership. It is a different matter that the Margdarshak Mandal might have been a clever way of sidelining some of these senior leaders. But Sinha surely is not one who left the BJP camp, which Shalya can certainly be accused of.
Moreover, senior leaders of the BJP came out with sharp statements in response to Sinha’s criticism. Finance Minister Arun Jaitely made a controversial personal attack against Sinha, and Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha (also Yashwant Sinha’s son) wrote an article in another newspaper defending the Modi government’s track record in managing the economy. A few other BJP acolytes also wrote articles and made statements in defence of the government. Essentially, Sinha’s criticism was taken as an attack from within and the party apparatus saw the need for responding to the points that were made by the senior BJP leader.
Does that mean Modi’s Shalya is Arun Shourie?
From Modi’s perspective, the description may be only partially correct. In October 2015, a general secretary of the BJP let it be known to the media that Shourie had ceased to be a member of the party. It seemed that all BJP members were expected to renew their membership after every six years and Shourie, according to the general secretary, did not renew his membership. The day of that announcement was significant as it came soon after Shourie criticised the Modi government’s performance. M Venkaiah Naidu, a Union minister in the Modi Cabinet then, said Shourie’s views were shared neither by the party nor the people.
But it is also true that unlike Shalya, Shourie is yet to join the Congress or any other Opposition party. So, the comparison at best is only partially true. Like Shalya, Shourie has criticised people from his former party, but he has not switched sides so far. Or does Modi believe that criticising him or his policies is tantamount to joining an Opposition party? Or is the comparison made to hint at Shalya’s grim future when he switched sides?
Yet, it is significant that the combined impact of criticism from Sinha and Shourie has brought out the most detailed response from the prime minister, outlining what he believes are his key economic achievements. After Sinha’s outburst, Shourie’s comments on demonetisation did lose some bite, also because there was no novelty factor in his attack.
It was also not a voice from within. Shourie was partly a Shalya, and not a Sinha, who attacked the party from within. More importantly, Shourie’s comments could easily be used by the BJP as proof of yet another unhappy person targeting the government. Indeed, it could be argued that Shourie’s comments have in some ways neutralised the impact of the Sinha attack.
A key point in Sinha’s attack was that like him many other leaders within the BJP are as disappointed with the government’s performance in managing the economy, but are afraid to speak up. So, Shourie’s speaking up after a few days of the Sinha comments could well be seen as a relief of sorts for BJP. Imagine a situation where some other leaders within the BJP fold spoke up in response to Sinha’s attack! For the BJP, the problem would have been more difficult to manage. Shourie, after all, could be dismissed as Shalya, as Modi actually tried to do.
The more significant implication of Modi’s detailed response along with the Shalya analogy seems to be the implicit message to all BJP members that they should not get encouraged by Sinha and start speaking up. Modi’s response is meant to shut up all such elements within the BJP as he has also offered the proverbial olive branch to the trade and industry by assuring them that GST procedures will be reviewed and that no harassment will take place by reopening their past accounts.