Ruling party MPs — even ministers — hurry past the Central Hall, the space between the two chambers of Parliament which has served as the leisurely gathering ground over endless cups of tea or coffee of politicians and senior journalists over the decades, where speech is unhindered, unhampered, and off the record, and where MPs who joust with one another inside the House can cosy up as chums.
When they were in the Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders would expostulate, pontificate, hold court, and unburden themselves of schemes and political plots, even if these were only inside their heads. Today, however, they say their worst fears will come true if they are spotted by Mr Modi’s look-out boys speaking with politicians of rival parties or, worse still, journalists. Perhaps the real fear is that the BJP MPs might spend too much time confabulating with one another, for that has the makings of something more complex than just the fixing of a little deal.
The PM’s spotters have been found in Central Hall on a regular basis of late. They are minor bureaucrats but have caused not a little dread in the BJP ranks in Parliament. Who wants to be reported for hobnobbing with the press, derided by Mr Modi as “news merchants” during the long election campaign? Nobody wants Big Brother to watch, and so it is deemed best to make sure there is nothing there for watching. It’s not just the BJP’s abandoned mentor and old warhorse Lal Krishna Advani who has retreated into a shell. The whole party has gone quiet. It is as though it has ceased to exist so soon after an election victory of historic proportions.
Daily briefings for the press, routine for decades, have suddenly stopped. The Prime Minister’s Office too has no spokesman. If a journalist wishes to meet a senior PMO official, there are no channels through which this can be made to happen. The day of handout journalism has arrived, typical of authoritarian regimes — so reminiscent of the days of the Emergency that the BJP leaders denounce to their heart’s content even 40 years after the event in a bid to squeeze out political mileage from a lemon that has long rotted. Newspapers thus publish what is officially given out, for nothing else is possible as there is a virtual gag order. Official propaganda is making a comeback.
After the BJP trounced its opponents in the election under Mr Modi’s leadership, now the unquestioned leader bowed low and deep to touch with his forehead the stone on the steps of Parliament House which he was entering for the first time in his life. It was an extraordinary spectacle and the country watched admiringly. India’s first PM from Hindutva ranks was to take oath of office with a majority of his own, unlike Atal Behari Vajpayee who had been hemmed in by grasping coalition partners. Naturally much was expected from such a man, first of all the refurbishing of democratic governance. A leading MP of a regional party from Orissa spoke breathlessly (and in the view of some of his colleagues, foolishly and prematurely) in a television programme the other day of the PM’s passionate commitment to democracy, for this is what the gesture on the steps signified to him.
Alas, the inner contours of the government remain unseen as they have been obscured from view with apparent deliberation. The PM hardly ever attends Parliament. (We can’t any more go to town questioning Rahul Gandhi’s record of low attendance in Parliament.) This is a sharp deviation from tradition. Mr Modi’s many distinguished predecessors would either be personally present in the House, or if busy on government work made sure they were frequently updated on Parliament proceedings in the course of a day. It was a rare exception if any of them went abroad for a multilateral conference or a bilateral summit when Parliament was in session. The PM deferred to Parliament — yes, even the all-powerful Indira Gandhi who could occasionally be seen walking with rapid strides to get to the House if an important Opposition leader was slated to speak. The mood of the Opposition in Parliament conveyed to successive PMs the temper of the country. How things have changed!
The present Indian leader is made of different stuff. Since he doesn’t attend Parliament much, at the Tuesday meetings of the BJP Parliamentary Party, he is said to gesture the BJP leaders of both Houses to summarise for him the week’s goings-on. He has perfected the art of controlling his MPs and ministers. By ensuring the election of his acolyte Amit Shah, who still has much answering to do before law courts for many alleged past misdemeanours, as president of BJP, Mr Modi’s control over the organisational machinery of the ruling party is also now absolute. As a journalist said only half in jest, the PM will now seek to ensure that it is he who gets to decide who the next Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief will be.
Is the stillness that surrounds us the stillness that attends on sterility? Are we looking at sterile times ahead, whose backlash can presage chaos? Or does the strangeness of the air signify a more disagreeable eeriness? We shall, of course, soon find out as the story unfolds. Only two-thirds of the hands-off one hundred days — the so-called “honeymoon period” of a newly elected government — are done. The media will stick to schedule and won’t step out of line before that. After that, let’s hope it won’t continue to remain a mute Modi-loyalist.