Mahendra Singh Dhoni smiled many times during the press conference he addressed this week, before the Indian cricket team left for England to participate in the ICC Champions Trophy. Every time a reporter started asking him a question about the spot-fixing scandal in the Indian Premier league (IPL), the corner of his lips began twitching, and by the time the questioner had finished, it had become a full-fledged smirk. No, it was not an apologetic smile, which could have conveyed something on the lines of “I am sorry guys, but my bosses at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) have asked me to keep my trap vacuum-sealed on spot-fixing, so I really can’t help you”. No. Dhoni seemed to be enjoying himself as questioner after questioner was rebuffed by the Indian team’s media manager, who just kept saying: “Next question.”
We will never know whether Dhoni was laughing only at the hapless journalists or at the mess that BCCI was making of the conference. What we do know, however, is that he could have easily parried the questions, saying that the matter was under investigation so he couldn’t talk about it; that he was shocked and concerned; that it was necessary to put all this dirt aside for the moment so that he and his team could focus on the upcoming tournament. These would have been stock replies, conveying little information, but they would have been replies. Instead, we had a merry twinkling-eyed silence—an insult to the nation Dhoni is supposed to be representing.
But then, in India, silence has always been the handiest tool of the powerful. I seem to remember being taught in my school civics course that, among other things, democracy vests people with the power to ask questions and demand answers. Yet our politicians routinely confront us with a wall of silence.
Rahul Gandhi, for example, does not give interviews and rarely answers any questions. Even routine information like his academic qualifications and work experience remained shrouded in mystery for years. I have always failed to understand the reason for this secrecy. Even if he failed all his exams, how did it matter to anyone, especially the electorate? It’s only from Decoding Rahul Gandhi, Aarthi Ramachandran’s unauthorized biography published last year, that I came to know that he graduated with a BA in international relations from Rollins College in the US, after which he went to Cambridge University in England and obtained an MPhil in development studies. As Ramachandran reveals, in the nomination papers Rahul filed as a candidate for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections at Amethi, he mentioned that he had passed his CBSE school-leaving exams, and had an MPhil in development economics from Cambridge. Why the silence about graduation? And how did he get the name of his Cambridge course wrong? After all, he did development “studies”, not development “economics”. The fact that he worked at the management consultancy firm Monitor Group in London, and later co-promoted a BPO firm in Delhi, were treated as state secrets. Why? It did not make him a lesser man in any way. Was it simply cussedness, or had he fallen in love with those absurd James Bond spoof films featuring Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery?
For his mother, of course, silence is a weapon. Sonia Gandhi has built a force field of silence around herself which keeps all her party politicians at a distance—both horizontally and vertically. Inside that field sits Sonia Gandhi, awash in enigma and general superiority, possibly emitting ultrasonic waves (Those waves have amounted to a significant chunk of Rs11 trillion of subsidies and doles since 2004, and, as a recent Mint editorial argued, “India would have been a better place if even half of that was diverted to useful public projects”). As far as I know, she has given only one interview to the Indian media in her entire political career.
Our Prime Minister does not speak either, except when pushed to the brink. But Manmohan Singh faces a strange problem—the people of India want him to speak more to them, but every time he does, it’s such a bunch of clichés delivered in a drab monotone that you wish he hadn’t spoken. His television address responding to the widespread and spontaneous citizens’ protests over the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi last December was so belated and uninspiring that the common Indian felt let down badly.
But can a person be blamed if he or she interpreted the Gandhis’ silence as the arrogance of the royally unaccountable, and Singh’s as the pure absence of any good convincing answers?
Silent leaders would, of course, prefer their people to be silent too. So under this government, we have seen random arrests and harassment of people posting on the Internet, or even taking photographs of ministers, and tear-gassing and water-cannoning of young apolitical Indians who expressed moral outrage collectively. These are Old World responses to New Age sensibilities. The fact is that people across the planet are talking more than they have ever done in the history of mankind, and the volume (in both senses) of talk will only keep rising. We usually credit intense social media activity with the public uprising in Egypt in January 2011. But, in fact, it was only when Egypt’s supreme leader Hosni Mubarak shut down all Internet services in the country that thousands of Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square, and triggered off “Arab spring”. The social media chatter did not topple Mubarak, his attempt to stop people from talking did.
Silence as a response to citizens’ questions is past its shelf life. It’s time the powerful in India figured that out.
Note: This article has been amended to reflect the correct value of subsidies and doles since 2004