In India, Modi government fumbles its response to gang-rape cases

Supporters of India’s main opposition Congress party participate in a candlelight vigil in Ahmedabad on Friday to protest the rapes of an 8-year-old girl and teenager. (Amit Dave/Reuters)
Supporters of India’s main opposition Congress party participate in a candlelight vigil in Ahmedabad on Friday to protest the rapes of an 8-year-old girl and teenager. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

On Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally spoke out on the two gang rapes gripping India this week — one of an 8-year-old and the other of a teenager. Millions of Indians have been shocked and saddened that the men accused of raping the children were being protected instead of prosecuted. Modi unequivocally promised that no one would be spared. On the same evening, a legislator accused in one of the rape complaints in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, was arrested. In the other case in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, two state ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were sacked for defending the suspected rapists. One of the ministers was on tape exhorting a mob to demand justice — not for the little shepherd girl who was kidnapped, raped and then strangled inside a temple – but for the men who did this to her.

Despite the fact that one of the cases is three months old and the other happened almost a year ago, protests over the cases reached critical mass only this week. Modi’s intervention, though woefully delayed, is welcome. But that his words have come so late remains bewildering. When Modi finally spoke, the moment appeared as having been forced by a furious public. His diffidence was compounded by coarse “whataboutery” by many right-wing supporters on social media, as well as the initial silence of all the women ministers in his cabinet.

In delaying his response, Modi was repeating the serious political mistakes of the Congress party.

Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh was always mocked for being the silent prime minister. The Congress leader governed India for 10 years and handled the scandals of his second term with reticent helplessness. That said, he could not have been more different from the current prime minister. Modi has been the master of the message, a superb orator with a keen instinct for the image and the narrative. One of the reasons for his historic win was that he made the Congress look like stragglers in a new age of political communication. And unlike the incumbents he defeated, Modi was sure-footed and agile. If Manmohan Singh was reserved, Modi, too, does especially not like the English-language media. He sees us as hostile to him and has often pushed back against opinions of liberal journalists. However, Modi has almost always used his sharp political acumen to bypass the mainstream press and talk directly to the people as needed.

Until Friday, as the rage kept mounting, there was no such straight talk. Meanwhile the Congress, perhaps having finally learned from its decimation in the 2014 elections, is borrowing from Modi’s playbook.

Late Thursday evening, Congress President Rahul Gandhi suddenly announced that he would lead a midnight street vigil to demand justice for the victims of Kathua and Unnao. Gandhi has also had to learn the hard way that in the information age, ivory tower politics and long silences are destined to fail. Modi’s success has forced Gandhi to change. And like the prime minister, he has also understood that you don’t actually have to talk to established reporters to make your point — you can seize the moment and script your own story. Indeed Thursday, Gandhi was at Delhi’s India Gate, with his sister and other party workers ensuring that the media remained focused on his march for the women. In contrast, the BJP was left to explain why its party men were marching for rapists and murders. That same day, the prime minister was on a day-long fast to “protest” the opposition’s stalling of Parliament; in a first for a politician who usually grabs the headlines, it barely made any impact. By focusing on an unrelated issue, rather than the gruesome rapes of two young girls, the BJP government grossly miscalculated what people care more about.

In many ways, Kathua and Unnao have been the Modi government’s “Nirbhaya” moment. In 2012, the grotesque gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student (she came to be known as “Nirbhaya” or “Fearless”) in the capital brought thousands of citizens onto the streets. The Congress administration mishandled the mass protests, with the police even firing tear gas to bring the crowds under control. Like the BJP now, the Congress then misread the public mood and the depth of the disgust, even among those who may have been its supporters.

In 2012, there was enormous debate on the absence of requisite sensitivity from the Congress government, in which women held powerful positions ( the Delhi chief minister and the Congress president then were both women). Today the otherwise self-assured female ministers in the BJP government have not taken the lead in speaking. Ironically, the ‘silent” Manmohan Singh did deliver a special televised national address to appeal for calm from the student protesters. This week, Modi chose to make his comments as part of a larger address at a public event unconnected to the rapes.

Many of Modi’s supporters have angrily asked journalists why the prime minister of a country should comment on every rape, in a country where more than 34,000 rape cases were registered in 2016. They entirely miss the point. Of course every rape is an unspeakable act against humanity; but the Kathua rape case and Nirbhaya before it, are now both national symbols and rallying points. It is impossible to look at the smiling photo of that little girl who was killed in Kathua and not shudder at the thought of what happened to her. Or how you may feel if it happened to your own child.

What set the Kathua and Unnao cases apart is not only the brazen defense of the accused perpetrators — including from some functionaries of India’s ruling party — , but the cover of nationalism and Hinduism to do so.

The prime minister’s words may have contained the damage for now. But the delay was not just poor messaging to victims of sexual violence. It was bad politics too.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines”. Dutt is based in New Delhi. Follow @bdutt

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