Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be accused of many things, but not of inconsistency. When he finally spoke about the Dadri lynching — in which a Muslim resident of western Uttar Pradesh, Mohammed Akhlaq, was murdered by a mob on the suspicion that he possessed beef — he essentially repeated what he had said from the ramparts of Red Fort in 2015: let people of different religions fight poverty together, and not each other. Typically, he urged people to ignore “irresponsible” statements from unnamed politicians; if you chose, you could read this as condemnation of the crazies in his own party, or you could read it as a jibe at Nitish Kumar’s and Lalu Prasad’s word on the subject.
Hopefully the PM’s speech will finally silence the chorus of people, who demand he “speak” on incidents such as this. Of course Modi will speak. He speaks well and often about many things. The problem is getting Modi to do things. Few calling for Modi to “speak” will be satisfied now — because nobody can read his gentle chiding and imagine that Modi-loving foot soldiers in the Hindutva culture war will feel disempowered.
Modi is, in his way, an unusually transparent man — especially for a man in politics. When he calls for Hindus and Muslims to fight poverty, he is clearly stating that inter-faith peace is not an end in itself; it is merely an instrument towards another end. Nor is it ever possible to imagine that he will accept the truth of incidents like Dadri: that what you had here was a Hindu mob showing a Muslim man his place. No, instead he will be even-handed even when — especially when — the events were not. Modi’s brilliance lies in making this essentially untrue “even-handedness” into a political virtue instead.
After the PM “spoke out” about Dadri, what will change? The men jockeying for power in the UP Bharatiya Janata Party, each imagining trying to out-radical the other in the hope of getting the chief minister’s chair after Akhilesh Yadav is voted out — will they change their ways? Unlikely. Will the local Sangh Parivar goon pause as he marks a Muslim family for intimidation and say: wait, why don’t I invest in a manufacturing plant instead? Doubtful. The other advantage of being Narendra Modi: you can say what you like, for Modi-loving faux-liberal English speakers will loudly insist you have said one thing; while your core constituency, who know they share your values, will know you have said quite another thing.
After all, was it not Modi who, as chief minister of Gujarat, made an issue years and years ago of the Centre’s support of the animal husbandry industry? Was it not Modi who, as prime ministerial candidate, thundered warnings of the “pink revolution” being ushered in by the godless Congress — and did he not deliver these provocative speeches in areas where he was wooing Yadav votes, just as he is doing again today? I heard no recantation of those views, no understanding of the dangers of such provocation. I heard no justification of the right to eat what you want, no warning against rampant majoritarianism. Nor would I ever expect to; for Modi is not going to ‘speak out’ on these matters in any way that is useful. He is a consistent man.
And it is also too much to expect the prime minister to ever actually do something about the things he speaks about. (It is as futile as expecting him to live up to his promises on the economy, I suppose.) If Modi was really willing to act on inter-faith harmony, he would have fired Mahesh Sharma, his culture minister, who said the lynching was an “accident”, a “reaction”, and praised the mob for not raping Mohammed Akhlaq’s 17-year-old daughter. If Modi actually meant to act to reduce communal tension in order to fight poverty, he would have named and disciplined his legislator Sangeet Som, who said the following after Dadri, according to India Today: “What is the job of an MLA? Ensuring power, water and good roads? An MLA’s job is to also deal with those who slaughter cows, who molest your sisters and mothers. I have done precisely that... I fought for you in Muzaffarnagar.” Of course he did; he has cases against him for inciting the riots in Muzaffarnagar that killed dozens and permanently created refugees of tens of thousands of Muslims.
Som, who explicitly renounces the idea of a sole focus on “development”, goes from strength to strength in Modi’s BJP. Why not? For the tone is set at the top. After Muzaffarnagar polarised western UP, drew the Jats to the BJP, and helped the party’s sweep, another riot-accused, Sanjeev Balyan, was made a minister by the victorious Modi.
The truth underlying Modi’s words and silences on inter-faith harmony, is blatantly obvious from the evidence. India’s prime minister may deplore these men’s impulsiveness and their timing, but he sympathises with their views and their actions. How could he not? They are not very different from the Modi of 2002. And, as I said, let us never accuse Modi of a lack of consistency: the Modi of 2015 is not very different from the Modi of 2002.