For Modi, ministers’ foot-in-mouth disease runs unabated

Embarrassing gaffes, discordant notes carry on despite ‘gag order’ on ministers

shantanu

Shantanu Datta | October 8, 2014



Prime minister Narendra Modi may or may not have put the so-called gag order on his ministers from interacting with the media. While there is no confirmation on any such official gag order, reporters covering ministries, and even cabinet committee briefings, talk about such an order from the highest echelons.

The idea, it appears, is to prevent the ministers from putting their foot where their mouth is. But in an age of 24x7 news television and online media, aside from the hyperactive social media, do such orders mean anything? Yes, the Modi administration has fewer ministers, with several of them holding multiple portfolios, resulting in fewer public addresses at different events or media conferences – and, ergo, fewer gaffes. But when you cut air supply, you tend to gasp for whatever is available. And that might be becoming slightly risky for the government, for those waiting for bits and bytes are that much more eager to pick up anything coming out of the mouths of the ministers.

Tuesday (October 8) had a bit more foot-in-mouth moment for the ruling dispensation. While Modi, campaigning in Maharashtra ahead of the assembly polls in the state, came up with a statement, that there is no way that the state can be divided, in an attempt to pull the rug from under the feet of the Thackeray cousins Uddhav and Raj, who have been trying to whip up sentiments against Modi for an alleged attempt to create a separate state of Mumbai, law minister Ravi Shanker Prasad said the BJP is for “smaller states”, indicating there is no change in the party’s long-held demand for separate statehood for Vidarbha.

“Our stand in support of creation of smaller states has not changed. Modi's statement was made in the context of Mumbai (being integral part of Maharashtra)," Prasad said. Modi, according to reports, though had made his statement to mean more than just Mumbai: “I can assure you that as long as I am in Delhi, no power in the world can separate Maharashtra… Can anyone born in this country think of splitting the land of Shivaji?”

The same day, speaking at an event organised by TERI in Delhi, water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation minister Uma Bharti batted for a ban on electric crematorium to burn bodies on the riverside. Instead, she advocated for more traditional pyre, though with minimum use of wood. “Instead of electric crematoriums, we are looking at burning bodies with less wood. We are asking people not to use electric crematoriums on ghats,” Bharti said, according to a report in TOI.

The remark, at a time when the centre is all at sea to explain to the supreme court how it plans to clean the Ganga, has attracted criticism on social media, with #UmaBharti trending for much of Wednesday morning.

These are, of course, just the latest in the trend of over the few months since Modi came to power. Earlier, there were embarrassing moments like home minister Rajnath Singh saying he has “no idea” about love jihad when pressed by reporters during his press conference to celebrate 100 days of his ministry. Over to a report by PTI: “Arey yeh hai kya? Hume nahi maloom (What is this? I don't know),” was Singh's reply when reporters drew his attention towards BJP leaders from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat issuing statements asking Hindu girls to stay away from Muslims. Singh's reply, the report added, led to peals of laughter from the scribes.

It makes little sense for the union home minister to say he has no idea about something that has been on every news channel and newspaper and online news site for days on end.

Similarly, HRD minister Smriti Irani’s comment on her “degree from Yale”. According to reports, pressed by a questioner at the India Today Woman Summit on August 9, Irani said, "In that kitty of mine where people call me 'anpadh' (illiterate) I do have a degree from Yale University as well which I can bring out and show how Yale celebrated my leadership capacities.”

That said “degree”, of course, was no degree but a certificate from the university to 11 Indian MPs who went to the Yale campus in Connecticut on June 19 last year to complete a six-day leadership programme with the renowned varsity’s faculty. As the HRD minister, Irani looks after education, among others.

Among others in recent days has been information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar’s Rajnath-esque comment that he had no inkling till late Thursday night about Doordarshan telecasting RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s Dussehra address live from Nagpur the following day, though the news was already making rounds of social media the day before.

Ignorance, as many reacted on social media, may be bliss for many, but it certainly cannot be for the country’s cabinet ministers.

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