Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s use of language has never been his forte. He seems to be aware of it, though he is unlikely to acknowledge it in the open in a graceful manner. He might do it in mock-humility, which is a way of saying that he does not accept that he does not have linguistic felicity. Though he can on occasion fall back on a Sanskrit quotation to garnish his speech, it is more a display of prickliness than intellectual pleasure. So, when he spoke in Rajya Sabha on Thursday morning bidding farewell to the outgoing Chairman of the Upper House and Vice President Hamid Ansari, Modi wove a verbal bramble to ensnare Ansari in a bid to encapsulate the Vice President’s diplomatic career. He wanted to use a linguistic rapier thrust to counter Ansari’s remarks in an interview to television journalist Karan Thapar about the sense of insecurity that Muslims felt under the BJP government. He would not want to let it pass though Leader of the Rajya Sabha and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his lukewarm remarks did not let political bristle slip in. Not Modi.
He made the caustic observation that Ansari has spent most of his diplomatic career in West Asia and he lived and interacted in the atmosphere of the region and that his way of thinking was moulded by that ambience. And that in his post-diplomatic career he was vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and chairman of the Minorities Commission, which was indirectly an extension of his West Asian experience. It was not until he came to be the Vice President and chairman of the Rajya Sabha, he did not have to deal with a different kind of world, which required that he had to constantly abide by the Constitution and run the House day in, day out in the light of the Constitution. Modi tried to conjecture that Ansari must have felt a certain uneasiness, and a certain sense of constraint in managing the functioning of the House. The Hindi word Modi used, and his speech was in Hindi, was “chhatpataahat”. The dictionary meaning of the word is “aakulata”, “bechaini”, “ghabraahat”. The more colloquial and direct meaning is “tilmilaana” or “writhe”.
What Modi wanted to convey was that when Ansari walked out of his West Asia/AMU/Minorities Commission, which was essentially a Muslim world, and faced the big, wide world of the Constitution and the Rajya Sabha, Ansari must have experienced some consternation even. The Prime Minister assured the outgoing chairman of the Rajya Sabha that he, the chairman, had given his best shot in doing the job well. He said now that he is stepping down from the seat of thorns as it were, he must be experiencing a sense of exultation at the new-found freedom and go back to his old way of thinking and speaking.
Modi’s actual words as recorded in the uncorrected, verbatim Rajya Sabha debate were: “Ho sakta hai bheetar aapke andar bhi kuchh chhatpataahat rahi hogi, lekin shaayad aaj ke baad aap ko woh sankat nahin rahega, ek mukti ka anand bhi rahega aur jo aapki moolbhoot soch rahi hogi, uske anusaar aap ko kaarya karne ka, sochne ka, baat bataane ka avsar bhi milega (It is possible that there must have been a sense of uneasiness in you, but perhaps after today you would not face the dilemma, and you would experience the bliss of emancipation and you could not act and express yourself according to your original manner of thinking (which was moulded by your stint in West Asia).”
Was Modi justified in hitting back at Ansari? It seems that he had enough cause to be angry with Ansari for criticising his government for creating a deep sense of insecurity among the Muslims in the country. There is already criticism in the social media from BJP supporters and the prime minister that it was “churlish”, “ungracious” on the part of Ansari to have criticised the government at the time of leaving office and that he was being even “ungrateful” to blame the country for the sense of fear felt by the Muslims in India under the present regime.
Of course, issues and questions are getting mixed up, causing confusion. When Ansari criticises the government of the day, he is not criticising the country. It is a preposterous presumption that the government of the day is the country. Ansari was indeed in a delicate situation. It would have appeared that he was a moral coward if he did not stand up and speak for the community. Was he just a Muslim? Was he also not Indian? Could he have not couched his concerns in more comprehensive terms. There is little doubt that Ansari belongs to the Congress tradition of secularism and pluralism, something that the BJP and its ideological affiliates do not accept.
Modi could have countered Ansari’s criticism by referring directly to the interview and he could have assured the outgoing vice president that his government would ensure the life and property of the minorities, and that the lynching of Muslims by the cow vigilantes was unfortunate and that it should not be generalised. That would have been both honest and candid.
Instead, the prime minister resorted to the ungracious means of blaming the Vice President of having been cocooned in the Muslim world. Modi was being churlish and extremely undignified. The occasion demanded graciousness. He did not want to show it because he did not have it. The Vice President took it on his chin, with a smile on his face. Modi showed that the BJP leaders lack finesse, wit. But then Modi is no Disraeli or Gladstone, the acerbic English political rivals of 19th century England. Perhaps it has to be said in favour of Modi that he does not want to borrow the sophistication that he lacks, and he prefers to be his own unschooled and untutored politician, who is rude when he is angry. Ansari could have been less partisan. He could have spoken like a statesman, and he could have asked the Modi government that it is its bounden duty to infuse a sense of security among the Muslims and minorities, instead of indirectly carping against the deteriorating situation. It is for the anti-BJP opposition to blame the Modi government for the rising sense of fear among Muslims and the minorities. The Vice President had the moral authority to exhort the government to protect the minorities. Ansari opted for the partisan mode, which is sad.
Modi’s crude and bitter outburst is sure to be forgotten even as Ansari will be remembered for his educated and dignified bearing.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.