In politics and comedy, timing is everything and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has failed the timing trick. Uttar Pradesh appears to be split in two worlds right now. In one, the Opposition parties and farmers are agitating against the ‘cold-blooded’ killing of four farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri. In the other, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is maintaining a complete silence and is instead busy projecting a utopian world, listing the Yogi Adityanath government’s many ‘achievements’.
Lakhimpur Kheri has been on the boil after the killing of eight people Sunday, with families of the dead farmers insisting that Ashish Mishra, son of Union Minister of State Ajay Mishra, was in the convoy that mowed the protesters down. Opposition leaders, including Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)’s Jayant Chaudhary, have forced the government on the back foot, resorting to measures like detaining them and prohibiting politicians, including Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, from entering the state or travelling to Lakhimpur Kheri.
Modi, however, is acting with his trademark oblivion. Inaugurating the ‘Azadi@75 – New Urban India: Transforming Urban Landscape’ programme, he gave a 35-minute speech without once mentioning the Lakhimpur tragedy, and instead tomtoming about the ‘achievements’ of the Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh.
While this is not unusual for Modi, who refuses to buckle under pressure and believes in setting the agenda himself, the extent of brazenness in this case is telling. Given the tragedy that has unfolded in UP, PM Modi is expected to condole or express anguish when visiting the state. But if not that, at the very least, he is expected not to adopt a celebratory and self-congratulatory tone and project a semblance of ‘sab changa si (all is well)’.
Modi in Lucknow
Whether MoS Mishra’s son was involved in ‘mowing down’ the protesting farmers and whether farmers acted violently is a matter of investigation. And while eyewitness accounts point towards Aashish Mishra’s involvement even as the minister’s own speech threatening farmers surfaced just before the tragedy, the BJP could still choose to ride the storm out. But regardless of the outcome of the case, the point currently is that, objectively speaking, several people have died in a tragedy that unfolded in broad daylight and the PM, speaking less than 150 kilometres from the spot, cannot ignore it in the unsympathetic manner that he did.
Look at Modi’s speech. He talks about how the PM Awas Yojana has been a ‘success’ in UP, how the setting up of Real Estate Regulatory Authority has been a great step, how LED street lights have helped save money, and basically how fantastic the BJP government has been.
Nothing wrong with any of this for a party staring at an election in just a few months, except for the ill-timed occasion, which displays not just a lack of sympathy but a degree of arrogance that no public representative should harbour.
Opposition in action
The starkness of the situation cannot be more glaring, with Opposition leaders stopped from visiting the spot, detained and demanding the Adityanath and Modi government be held accountable for the killings.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra sweeping the floor of the guest house where she was detained, Bhupesh Baghel sitting on a dharna at Lucknow airport, Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi protesting and Jayant Chaudhary at his vocal best — the Opposition has made sure the tragic incident doesn’t wither away from the headlines. But Modi, with his stone-cold silence and a ‘glorifying’ speech in Lucknow, seems to be bent upon ‘hijacking’ the agenda and relying on what he knows best — obliviousness, obduracy and obfuscation.
The Modi hallmark
Narendra Modi has always been his own person. He can brazen things out like nobody else and seemingly views acts such as apologising, acknowledging or responding positively to criticism as a sign of weakness.
But there is a thin line between brazenness and insensitivity. And PM Modi’s Lucknow speech falls more into the latter category. Not wanting to go back on the new farm laws is a different matter — it is the government’s prerogative to bring in policies and stand by them. But to attempt to whitewash a violent day for which your own minister and his son are under the scanner and try to outdo the news cycle with your self-congratulatory approach is callous and inconsiderate to say the least.
Sure, this has been a Modi trait ever since he was Gujarat CM. Block out anything inconvenient, focus only on the electorally beneficial and don’t ever give your critics or the Opposition the pleasure of thinking they managed to get you to react. But one would expect that seven years into prime ministership, Modi would become more statesman-like, empathetic and humble.
This isn’t about giving in to the Opposition, after all. This is about a prime minister reacting to a terrible tragedy and being the bigger person, even if it is politically inconvenient. Condoling with the families of the victims, asking for swift action and justice is no sign of weakness, or of conceding to the Opposition – it is a matter of pure decency. It does not matter whether the BJP believes the Lakhimpur Kheri incident won’t hurt it electorally. For a prime minister, not everything should be viewed from the prism of elections. If Modi enjoys his image as the family elder, he has to live up to it even, and especially, in situations like these.
Narendra Modi is an immensely popular leader. For someone of his stature, to give a pat-on-the-back kind of speech when a tragedy has unfolded in the state is dangerously close to the proverbial rubbing of salt on wounds. A healing touch never hurts, hubris often does.
The author tweets @RuhiTewari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)