A masterclass in blame avoidance

Bharat Bhushan

Narendra Modi’s blame avoidance has been made possible not only by his oratorical skills, but by televised proceedings of Parliament. Live-streaming allows soap-box oratory to supplant accountability

Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to address in Parliament the controversies and allegations surrounding businessman Gautam Adani’s meteoric rise and, now, his perceptible decline. By removing from parliamentary records, the allegations of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi Rahul Gandhi against the Prime Minister and the questions he asked of him about his alleged links with the businessman, the Lok Sabha would have the people believe that they were never made. No questions asked, therefore, no answers given. QED.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha and Mallikarjun Kharge in the Rajya Sabha focussed on Adani’s unusual rise, alleging that it was because of facilitation by the State and leveraging his closeness to Modi. The allegation was of cronyism —  – that rules were tweaked, state State agencies were misused, and diplomatic connections were used abroad to open up business opportunities for Adani in areas where his companies had no experience.

As is his wont, when Prime Minister Modi spoke, he took the debate in an entirely different direction. He made it about his government’s massive mandate and invoked the people of India in his defence – in effect, an election speech aimed at his perceived constituency of voters in Parliament. The aim was blame avoidance.

Blame avoidance, psychologists tell us, is used in politics to circumvent demands for accountability which come through a wide array of ‘blame generators’ in a democracy –  debates in parliamentParliament, elections or other political campaigns, public protests, and critical media reportage, among others. The blame generators in this case was were not just the Hindenburg Research report alleging large-scale market manipulation by the Adani Groupgroup. In the past, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party have been vocal about the growth of crony capitalism under the Modi government – this was evident in Rahul Gandhi’s speeches during the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY), the Congress referring to the tenure of this government as “‘Mitra Kaal” ’ (an “‘Era of friendship”, ’, an anagram of “‘Amrit Kaal” ’ used as a descriptor by Prime Minister Modi for his road map of India for the next 25 years), and using the vote of thanks on the President’s speech Speech to Parliament to raise this issue.

In responding to these allegations, Prime Minister Modi resorted to a variety of strategies of blame avoidance – limiting the agenda, redefining it, passing the buck, and providing a protective shield to the alleged misdemeanours and criminality of a controversial businessman.

He redefined the issue by shifting the goalpost from crony capitalism to the Opposition questioning his trustworthiness as a leader. Once this was done, Adani’s alleged manipulation of the share market and “pulling off the largest con in corporate history” was off the table. He could then pitch the people of India against the Opposition (i.e., claiming that they had reposed their faith in him, and not the Opposition) and suggest that the voters cannot be wrong or ‘insulted’ in this manner.

This eased the way for Prime Minister Modi to claim, “I have the protective shield of the trust of 140 crore countrymen and you cannot penetrate this shield with your lies.” Within the total population of India, he singled out as his supporters, those 80- crore people who were beneficiaries of a free ration programme, PM KISAN scheme, Ujjwala scheme, PM Awas, and Swachh Bharat programme. The allegations of the Opposition “will have to pass through those crores of Indians whom they had forced to live in trouble for decades”,” he claimed.

It may be illogical to read the majority mandate given to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as either a licence to be unaccountable or a shield for the alleged misdeeds dirty deeds of a businessman with close links with the party’s leadership. But political demagoguery cares little for such niceties. It may also be political chicanery to fire from the shoulders of  the “‘labharthis” ’ (beneficiary of free food grain and other welfare programmes) at the Opposition – the demeaning assumption being beneficiaries that stuffed with of the freebies, they will not criticise him.

The Opposition is talking about the likely consequences for the ordinary middle-class citizens who had invested in the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), or in various pension schemes and market funds of PSU banks who stand to lose the value of their investment. Curiously, even after the Hindenburg report, someone somewhere was prompting the LIC and other anchor investors to throw good money after bad (another blame avoidance strategy when a policy is under question) and still invest in the follow-up share offer (now withdrawn) of the Adani Group.

Instead of assuaging the fears of the small investors and citizens who trust LIC and the PSU banks more than others, the Prime Minister diverted the whole issue to hunger, on how his government was providing free food to 80- crore people, and how previous governments had done nothing about this – a blatant lie, as the National Food Security Act came into being in 2013. Nor was 2004-2014, “the lost decade” as the Modi government has failed to match both the growth of India’s economy under Dr. Manmohan Singh’s leadership and the inclusiveness of India then, a distant memory now. History, to use Singh’s phrase, will judge him kindly, but it may not be forgiving of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “‘Amrit Kaal”.’.

The misuse of Article 356 to dismiss state governments by the previous Congress dispensations at the Centre had nothing to do with the price of onions. While claiming that in the past few years “compulsive criticism” had replaced “constructive criticism”, Modi the Prime Minister himself could not resist taking his usual swipe at the Opposition. Rather than eulogising the independence of India’s investigating agencies, he instead delivered something closer to a eulogy – claiming that “It’s because of ED [Enforcement Directorate] that these people (the Opposition parties) have come together on a common platform.”

Modi’s The blame avoidance of Prime Minister Modi has been made possible not only by his oratorical skills, but by televised proceedings of parliamentParliament. Live Live-streaming allows soap-box oratory to supplant accountability. Parliamentary debates become less about responsibility to the peoples’ representatives, and more about a pseudo-resolution in the court of public opinion to claim “‘all is well” ’, and “‘sab changa si”.’