Every newspaper in India carried the same headline on Friday, the 9th of October: 'Modi breaks silence on Dadri lynching.' It says something about the breathless desperation of the Indian press to hear the prime minister say something, anything, that could be interpreted as his disapproval of political barbarism, that there wasn't, in fact, a word in his speech about the Dadri lynching.
Modi began by quoting and congratulating himself. Two years ago he had addressed a public meeting in Gandhi Maidan in Patna. Before the meeting began, bombs went off at the venue and killed innocent people. In the face of this violence, he had behaved with exemplary restraint to calm the crowd, to prevent Bihar from descending into violence. He had said on that occasion that Hindus and Muslims had to make up their minds whether they wanted to fight poverty or each other.
Modi then attacked his political opponents, who having fled Patna at the time, unmindful of the violence being done to the capital, had arrogantly mocked his speech. This wasn't, he said, how politics should be done. Notice that the immediate rhetorical context of Modi's message in this speech is not the lynching (which is never mentioned) but the cynical, arrogant response of his political opponents in Bihar, in particular the then chief minister, to the bloody mayhem of that public meeting in 2013.
The country, said Modi, had to stay united; only unity, brotherhood and harmony and peace could take the nation forward. Petty men tried to advance their political self-interest by making nonsensical public statements. He asked his countrymen to ignore these statements, indeed to ignore Narendra Modi himself, if he were to make a statement of that kind. (Like all political narcissists, Modi enjoys referring to himself in the third person.)
He counselled his countrymen that if they were to attend to anyone they ought to attend to their President, Pranab Mukherjee, who, in a speech the previous day, had shown the right way. The politics of self-interest had to be transcended, the path shown by the President had to be followed and only then would India fulfill the expectations that the world had of it.
The speech is a study in self-righteousness, boilerplate and deflection. Mohammad Akhlaq's murder by a mob of gau rakshaks isn't mentioned, not even as a peg on which to hang his generalities about unity and harmony. That BJP members had been in the vanguard of the mob, that BJP party bearers, MLAs, MPs, and two union ministers had, variously, produced rationalisations for the lynching, dismissed it as an 'accident', exhorted the police to file an F.I.R. against the dead man and his ravaged family and persisted with the bogey of cow-slaughter in the face of all the evidence, was never even acknowledged.
One reason why people in general and the press in particular had lived in daily expectation of a prime ministerial intervention, was in the hope that Modi would call his party members and ministerial colleagues to account for their naked communal partisanship. Again, there wasn't a word of reproach in the speech for Nawab Singh Nagar, Srichand Sharma, Sangeet Som, Tarun Vijay, Mahesh Sharma and Sanjeev Baliyan, all of whom had been so solicitous of the mob's sensibilities about cow slaughter. Modi's speech was a date-less, place-less, fact-free condemnation of petty politicians who say stupid things to advance their selfish interests. If this speech amounts to Modi breaking his silence on the Dadri lynching, we might as well put it to more general use: perhaps it can represent his remorse for the Gujarat pogrom or even the BJP's mea culpa for the razing of the Babri Masjid? It has about as much to do with those horrors as it does with Akhlaq's murder: namely, nothing.
But isn't it unreasonable to expect a prime minister, a head of government, to refer to a single incident, however horrible, while drawing a larger lesson about virtuous politics and communal harmony? No, it isn't. Especially when his partymen choose to take sides in a hideous, bigoted murder. If Barack Obama could reach out by name to a young Muslim boy arrested and disciplined for taking a clock in to class, what Olympian perspective prevents Narendra Modi from reaching out to a family whose life has been destroyed by a hate-filled mob?
Still, isn't it a little literal-minded to insist that the Prime Minister name-check Dadri? Given the pressing context of the lynching, isn't an ishara enough? No. It's not enough. Narendra Modi deals in pious generalities - e.g. sabka saath, sabka vikas - without ever calling out the BJP's bigots for their fanaticism for a reason; it gives his genteel supporters a fig leaf with which to cover their nakedness while reassuring his base that he remains an unapologetically Hindu lohpurush. The Nawada speech was another variation on that sturdy theme.
Meanwhile, the BJP's cowboys continued to ride. Less than a week after the lynching, Sushil Modi, the leader of the BJP in Bihar, decided to use this new storm to fill his sails. The Bihar Assembly election, he declared "...is a fight between those who eat beef and those who are against cow slaughter... Now, people must decide whether they want beef-eaters or those who want to ban it."
The same day as the prime minister made his speech in Bihar, his party men in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly assaulted and collectively beat up an Independent MLA Engineer Rashid, inside the House for hosting a beef party the previous evening in the MLA hostel.
Characteristically, the same day as he made his much reported speech in Nawada, Narendra Modi himself made another speech in Begusarai where, inside ten days of Akhlaq being lynched for allegedly eating beef, he tried to make political mileage out of the sacred cow. Addressing himself to Yadavs, Laloo Yadav's core constituency, he announced that he came from Gujarat, Krishna's Dwarka, where the Lord himself taught Gujaratis their love for the cow.
Contrary to the headlines, then, the prime minister didn't break his silence on the Dadri lynching in Nawada; he used his speech (and, more culpably, the President's) to finesse a human tragedy.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.