When in Rome

November 17, 2015



Intolerance will not be tolerated, Prime Minister Modi tells the British media after refusing to talk on the subject at home. Is he following in the footsteps of Indira Gandhi who was more comfortable speaking her mind abroad?


It appears Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also in the same league as many Indians who feel more comfortable outside the country doing certain things that they don’t normally do at home. For some inexplicable reason, on his 28th or 29th trip abroad (one loses count because of the frequency) since he became Prime Minister 18 months ago, Modi seems to be following in the footsteps of one of his predecessors. India’s most powerful prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was somewhat more indulgent with the media when abroad than when in the country.

 Her interactions with the media in terms of a formal press conference were rare. Her biggest problem was that she would get irritated by the camera flash bulbs. At least, that is what she had once told photographers who were clicking away their good old cameras, unlike the current ones which are permanently in auto mode. But, for the selfie-friendly incumbent, there appear to be no such problems. He knows exactly where the cameras are on as we saw during his friendly interactions with Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook headquarters during his visit to the US.

So, it came as quite a surprise to the mediapersons as well as the political class that the Prime Minister should agree to have an interaction with the media in London during his visit last week. It was surprising because he has never addressed a formal media conference since he started ruling India. But, more interesting was the fact that he replied in a sort of straight forward manner to a question on intolerance, brilliantly calibrated by members of his party and its affiliates. The first instance of his participation in the intolerance debate was at an election rally where he wanted people to heed the advice of President Pranab Mukherjee, who had spoken about the values of Indian culture which was inherently tolerant.

Subsequently, Modi had told a newspaper interviewer that the federal government had little to do with the lynching of a man by a mob because he was rumoured to have stored and eaten beef at his house. He was, in short, deflecting the blame on to the state government (in this case, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh) for not controlling the law and order situation. Neither of his statements helped mute the motormouths in his party. But, the media at the London press conference appears to have got something more concrete than his bland statements within the country. For the first time, Modi has made it clear that intolerance will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

Calling India the land of Buddha and Gandhi (both epitome of peace and non-violence), Modi went on to point out that even a single incident will not be tolerated under any circumstances. With this one statement, Modi debunked all that his party’s spokespersons as well as his ministers had stated in scores of media briefings and meetings. Their statements, in unequivocal terms, had painted all criticism and protests against intolerance with the same brush of a ‘manufactured revolt’ by the ruling party’s opponents when the fact was, indeed, otherwise. Perhaps, it was due to the paucity of time or opportunity which prevented the media from asking a supplementary pointing out the contradiction between the stand of his party colleagues and himself.

But, it should be said to the credit of the media that they asked questions that every section of media in India was waiting to ask, particularly on the intolerance debate, for the last several months. These included a tough one to British Prime Minister David Cameron as to how comfortable he felt inviting Modi considering that he was unwelcome during the first couple of years of his (Cameron’s) term because of the 2002 pogrom of Muslims. Cameron’s reply was rather straight considering that Modi had the mandate of the people. Modi, of course, ducked a question on the 2002 violence.

There is one more aspect in which the Prime Minister has been different when abroad. A couple of weeks ago, several leaders from Africa who spoke at the India-Africa summit, constantly recalled the contribution of India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as well as his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to supporting their cause in international fora as well as building strong relationships with them. Strangely, there was not a mention of either of these names by their 21stcentury successor.

So, it came as another surprise that Modi should praise Nehru before British MPs but not within the country. It could well be because what his party is doing currently is defeating the very idea of a pluralistic society that was promoted by Nehru.

 It is odd because a person cannot be appreciating his predecessors when abroad and get into the mute mode or critical mode on home ground. It is one thing to cut to size the influence of the Nehru-Gandhi family in the psyche of the voter. So, when the responses or reactions come on policy matters from any quarter, the tendency of the ruling party and its spokespersons is to personalise the attack on the Nehru-Gandhi family. Such an approach does not lead to a decent debate by which new ideas could evolve in the interest of the nation nor does it lead to healthy polity. And not all criticism need be politically motivated.  

This is why the question keeps popping up whether the ruling party lives under some kind of an illusionary or real apprehension with regard to the current leadership of the Congress party. It is well  understood by even Congress party men that the current leadership of the main opposition is not the same as its predecessors from whom it has got its name. This is why the approach of one stand within the country and another stand when abroad of the Prime Minister appears odd.

IISc makes the cut 

Finally, one Indian institution which many are proud of has emerged in the top 100 of the world’s engineering and technology universities. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has been listed at 99 in the 'Times Higher Education Ranking' and joins 24 other Asian institutions. The ranking comes with a note that there is no sector, whether in the traditional manufacturing or aerospace engineering or information technology, where India’s prowess has not been visible.

The story of IISc may surprise many because it is more than a 100 years old. The scientific institution was set up on a land provided by the then Maharaja of Mysore, Nalawadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, on the request of Jamshedji N Tata.  The idea to set up a scientific institution emerged during a discussion that Tata had with Swami Vivekananda. The granting of the land to the IISc in Bengaluru is always seen as the Wodeyar dynasty’s commitment towards privatisation of higher education.   


It is something that happens quite often in some Indian universities. Students being caught copying in an examination is passé. With some effort, the authorities have been able to curb the tendency of students to carry possible answers to the probable questions on their smart phones. From the time the authorities banned carrying of mobile phones, a fresh case has emerged last week of an Omani student in a Bengaluru college. The university authorities have not disclosed his identity but it appears from reports that the case of copying is almost tied up with the exception of some loose ends.

The story goes that the student carried his smart phone inside the examination hall and texted the questions to his friend who was located close to the examination centre. This friend used the same technology to send back replies that the student dutifully wrote in the

answer sheet. The student is alleged to have been backed up by his brother as well as a girl student who helped trip the invigilator by sticking her foot out when he was walking towards the student in question.

Such support, obviously, did not work because the invigilators’ suspicion came true after persuading the student to password enable the smart phone. And, just when the invigilators were checking for any answers to the questions asked in the paper, the dear friend outside sent in the answer to a question. The timing of its arrival seems to have sealed the fate of the student. Perhaps, he could have saved a lot of money for his parents by reappearing for the exam.


[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]