In Lucknow, on Sunday, the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, announced that he has been advised to maintain silence. The immediate cause of this announcement was a terrible sore throat that led to such a recommendation by doctors. The situation is not without a certain degree of dramatic irony. Many, and they include Mr Vajpayee’s critics as well as his admirers, believe that he remains silent for far too long even when his larynx is in the best condition. The silence is marked in the long, almost interminable, pauses between words in his speeches. The silence is deafening when he refuses to respond to noises made by the extreme elements within the sangh parivar, and sometimes even by his senior cabinet colleagues against his policies. The silence is broken when the prime minister asserts his authority. But then he relapses into silence. A case in point is the recent outburst of Mr Vajpayee against ministers voicing their criticism of the disinvestment policy. The silence after the outburst only serves to make the show of anger ineffective, and thus self-defeating. Mr Vajpayee belongs to a generation of politicians who were schooled in the belief that rhetoric is more important than substance. Unfortunately, as the prime minister of the country, he cannot adhere to such a dictum too strongly since it projects the image of a person incapable of executing the powers vested in him by the people of India.
It has the added liability of a loss of credibility. This was evident in Lucknow, where there was the widespread suspicion that the prime minister was using his sore throat as a ruse to escape meeting disgruntled members of the legislative assembly of Uttar Pradesh belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The resentment of the legislators sprang from their sense of deprivation: they felt they had been done out of ministerial berths by the current dispensation in UP. The suspicion may well have been baseless and Mr Vajpayee may well have been recommended a dose of silence. What is of relevance is the suspicion that the prime minister was trying to run away from a potentially embarrassing encounter. This is not a good sign for the prime minister and the respect he should command. The point acquires greater sharpness because the incident occurred in Lucknow, Mr Vajpayee’s home turf. This time round, Mr Vajpayee had valid reasons for remaining silent. This is not always the case. His inexplicable silence on occasions lends itself to the conclusion that Mr Vajpayee is his worst enemy. If medical doctors recommend silence, his spin doctors should strongly suggest a booster dose of assertion.