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India’s Modi has a strategy for dealing with controversies: Silence

Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, leaves the stage after speaking at a business symposium in Tokyo.
Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, leaves the stage after speaking at a business symposium in Tokyo. (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg News)
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NEW DELHI — India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Trump, the leaders of the world’s largest democracies, share certain traits as politicians.

Both are ardent nationalists. Both know how to command a stage and captivate their supporters. But where the American president never passes up an opportunity to comment on a controversy, India’s leader prefers a different strategy: silence.

There are at least three significant political disputes roiling the Modi government, but the prime minister has not discussed them in public. 

The omission is striking because Modi is a politician who is constantly speaking. This past weekend, for instance, he addressed several campaign rallies ahead of upcoming state elections and released the 50th episode of his monthly radio address.

But Modi uses such occasions to laud his government’s track record and to launch blistering attacks on his opponents — while staying away from certain topics in the headlines. He also avoids unscripted questions: The prime minister has not held a news conference since taking office in 2014.

In his public appearances, Modi does not talk about a controversial fighter jet deal with France, a purchase whose timing and structure have raised questions about whether his government acted properly.

Nor does Modi discuss the recent abrupt removal of the head of India’s equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a step that would have required the approval of his office. Similarly, he has not commented on reports detailing unprecedented tensions between his government and the central bank over how to manage the economy. 

The prime minister also remained silent when a junior minister in his government resigned last month after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct. 

For Modi, the unwillingness to delve into contentious issues is part of a long-running strategy to present himself as above the fray, analysts say, while leaving day-to-day political combat to his lieutenants. 

Four years ago, Modi led his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a monumental victory by running a presidential-style campaign, emphasizing his qualities as a leader over party affiliation. Political experts expect him to employ similar tactics when he seeks reelection in the spring.

Since becoming prime minister, Modi has exercised strict control over his political brand, making skillful use of social media to communicate directly with voters. He has carefully managed his interactions with journalists, preferring friendly outlets and prearranged questions over formats such as news conferences that might deliver surprises.

Modi’s supporters say that if he is not discussing a topic, it is because it is not worthy of discussion — and that any response by the prime minister would fuel attacks by the opposition. 

The prime minister’s opponents will not change course no matter what he says, said Sudhanshu Trivedi, a BJP spokesman. “If we know you will keep on shouting the same thing, there’s no use in responding,” Trivedi said.

Critics counter that Modi does not engage with any issue that might show his government in a less-than-flattering light. “The strategy is, anything which is embarrassing him, he’ll keep quiet,” said Yashwant Sinha, a former finance and foreign minister who left the BJP this year. “Whereas he’ll be very aggressive on issues where you can attack others.”

While campaigning to become prime minister, Modi used to criticize his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, for saying too little about matters of national importance. Modi called him “Maun-mohan Singh,” a play on words in Hindi that inserts the word for “silent” into the former prime minister’s name.

“The fact is that Mr. Modi chooses his subjects very carefully,” said Satish Misra, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi who has written extensively about the BJP. “The subjects that he doesn’t want to touch, where he can be trapped, he avoids. That is his technique and it does work for him.”

Last month, Alok Verma, the head of India’s premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, was relieved of his duties in the middle of the night. Modi’s lieutenants have described the step as unfortunate but necessary, the product of dueling corruption allegations between Verma and his deputy. But opponents say the move undermines the independence of the agency, and the Supreme Court is reviewing the removal. 

Modi has not discussed the situation in public. Instead, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, addressed the media in the aftermath of the move. 

A spokesman for the prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

In rare cases, Modi’s reluctance to take stands on controversies or scandals is overwhelmed by public pressure. After the lynching of a Muslim man accused of killing a cow in 2015 — the first prominent case in what would become a spate of similar incidents — Modi initially said nothing. Two weeks later, he called the slaying “sad” but rejected any connection to his government. 

Last year, after more people were killed by Hindu extremists in the name of protecting cows, Modi directly condemned such acts for the first time. “No person has the right to take the law into his own hands,” he said. “Violence is not a solution.” 

Sometimes Modi is “eventually moved to speak, but it’s sort of a day late and a dollar short,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of a recent book on Indian politics. “You lose some of your moral authority when you wait so long.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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