Not the proper occasion


Manmohan Singh was an economist before he took over as Prime Minister; economists are seldom orators. Therefore, he can scarcely be faulted for...

Manmohan Singh was an economist before he took over as Prime Minister; economists are seldom orators. Therefore, he can scarcely be faulted for delivering a platitudinous speech on Independence Day from the Red Fort. On this occasion, successive Prime Ministers have only run the rule over the state of affairs and listed what they imagined as the achievements of their respective governments. And when Parliament is in session, a Prime Minister can hardly make any policy announcement outside the House without provoking MPs.

Therefore, Dr Singh’s address on Thursday can be taken as read! Yet a certain solemnity attaches to Independence Day and the Republic Day when the Prime Minister and the President, respectively, address the nation. Any attempt to undermine the solemnity of the occasion is not compatible with democratic culture. Yet, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi used the occasion to dare the Prime Minister to a public debate on governance, or the lack of it, during the past nine years. That is nothing new. Modi’s vaulting ambitions are a national scandal and the object of ridicule by many of his own party colleagues.

Also, several non-Congress leaders have off and on taken on Singh for the policy paralysis that his government suffers from to the corruption it encourages. It must, however, be said to the credit of such critics that they never resorted to cheap-jack arguments. For instance, BJP patriarch LK Advani has added more than a cubit to his stature by stating, in a veiled reference to Modi’s attack on Singh on Independence Day, that it was not the occasion for such carping. By a strange coincidence, Modi addressed students of a college in a Gujarat town about the same time Singh was addressing the nation. He was, therefore, justified in countering each claim made by the Prime Minister.

However, democratic decency demanded that he should have stopped with that. But Modi challenged Singh to a public debate on comparative governance of Gujarat (by himself) and that of the nation (by Singh). Some of Singh’s ministerial and party colleagues were stung by the challenge and dared Modi for a public debate with any one of them instead.
Is this the spirit of democratic discourse? If a megalomaniacal Chief Minister of a State, even if his popularity in his own State is established, indulges in raving, probably chafing under the realization that he is addressing students of a college while he should have been addressing the nation from the Red Fort, there cannot be a better response than ignoring him. Or, alternatively, he should have been given what John F. Kennedy once called a “silencing response”.

The latter was clearly beyond the intellectual resources of Singh’s associates; neither would they ignore the rants of Modi. For instance, an eminent British journalist-turned-politician Richard Crossman was once criticized by racists, who claimed that Britain owed its civil peace to their ideology. Crossman merely told Enoch Powell: “They (the racists) remind me of the Roman tag which can be translated as ‘they create a wilderness and call it peace’”. If one of the Central Ministers had said the same when Modi or his acolytes crowed about uninterrupted communal peace in Gujarat since 2002, all of them would have been silenced. If only national problems could be solved through school/college debates, India would today be rid of politicians!

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