When the leader’s silence is a decisive action

Is Modi following the example of former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in choosing inaction lately? But then, Rao never claimed to be a 'decisive leader', which Modi does about himself

PM Modi has hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping but never called to question him over Galwan and Arunachal Pradesh. (photo: Getty Images)
PM Modi has hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping but never called to question him over Galwan and Arunachal Pradesh. (photo: Getty Images)

Aakar Patel

Thirty years ago the cartoonist Sudhir Tailang drew an image of the then-prime minister with a caption that had words from the Gita: "This Self, weapons cannot pierce, nor fire can burn, water cannot wet, nor air can dry up. Changeless, all-pervading, unmoving, immovable."

The reference was to Narasimha Rao's ability to weather criticism and carry on. The primary accusation against him was that in a difficult spot, he did nothing—a man of inaction as opposed to a man of action; an indecisive leader and not a decisive one. Tailang's cartoon had Rao seated with his eyes closed while thunderbolts fell all about him, damaging the nation.

Part of this neglect was forced on Rao. The Congress leader was fettered as he had only 240 seats in Parliament. A prime minister with a minority cannot force through legislation the others don't like and, in the Congress of that time, he had rivals inside the party as well.

But part of it was also deliberate and came from his style. "To not take action is itself an action," as he explained to an interviewer (in those days, prime ministers offered themselves up for questioning). As a diarist put it in Outlook magazine, ‘Narasimha Rao has done for the laws of inertia, what even Newton couldn't. Or so it would seem, judging from the kudos he has received for his "inaction is the best action" principle.'

His colleague G. Sanjeeva Reddy said, "He is a deep thinker and not a man of immediate action", someone with the "ability to resist the temptation to take instinctive decisions".

It was a period of turmoil, as all periods are in this wretched nation. Violence over Ram mandir, Mandal, the riots in 1992, the bomb blasts in 1993, bribery inside Parliament, impeachment of a Supreme Court justice, an economic crisis—it had everything. Through all of it, Rao soldiered on, and he survived.


Let us compare him and his style to the leader in our present time, who is famously decisive and action-oriented. At least, so far as the branding goes. This is being written on June 17. Manipur has been in flames since May 3, meaning for 45 days. The prime minister has done little about it.

The home minister took almost a month before he went to visit on 30 May. But his visit did not end the violence because he did not go with anything other than words.

From the PM, there have not even been words. But then what will he say? That his double-engine government has collapsed? That the BJP cannot carry out even the basic functions of the state: law and order and protecting civilians? No, he will not say that. That is not his style.

Manipur is burning since 3 May, but PM Modi has not spoken a word on it
Manipur is burning since 3 May, but PM Modi has not spoken a word on it

And so instead he has chosen silence, perhaps in the expectation that this will blow over on its own and then he will not have to do anything about it.

This has happened before, and not that long ago. On 17 April 2021, he was in Asansol, addressing what he said was the largest rally he had ever seen. That day, over 2 lakh people were detected to be Covid-positive and the number would double over the next few days. The scenes from India's hospitals and cremation grounds made news all over the world. The incompetence and the culpability of the government was on full display.

In the face of the calamity, the government froze and the prime minister disappeared. In the seven months from March to September 2020, Modi made 82 public appearances, physical as well as virtual. In the next four months, he made 111 such appearances.

From February to 25 April 2021, he clocked 92 public appearances. From 25 April 2021, after he called off the Kumbh and his Bengal rallies, Modi disappeared. He made not a single public appearance for 20 days.

He showed himself again only when it was clear that the wave had subsided and that he would no longer have to face hard, immediate questions.

What else could he have done? He could have rolled up his sleeves and gone to work there in the trenches. To be at the hospitals, at the airports where the distribution of foreign aid was being blocked by laws—and last month, he could have been with the people of Manipur.

Even if there is a small chance of success or even if there is a possibility of being personally associated with failure, a leader will step in during a hard time because that is what leadership is. You do it because you are obliged to do it as a leader.

Modi does not step in; he stays away—as Manipuris have seen, as the victims and survivors of the second wave saw. Because he does not step in, his ministers also stay away and this makes problems fester. The home minister should have been in Imphal much earlier, but there is no pressure on him if the prime minister is also silent.

Many people, if they had met someone 18 times, would confront that someone if he/she did something wrong to them. But Modi did not pick up the phone to ask Xi Jinping why he was doing what he was doing in Ladakh. No personal responsibility was assumed for trying to solve the problem.

It is what Narasimha Rao would have done also. But he did not pretend to be a man of action and he did not say that he was a decisive leader.

 (Views are personal)

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