How does Prime Minister Narendra Modi differ from his predecessors – Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee – when it comes to dealing with the opposition’s demands for resignation of tainted ministers?

Vajpayee, who led the first National Democratic Alliance government, could not withstand the opposition pressure for long. On March 13, 2001, showed, among other things, the then Samata Party president Jaya Jaitley accepting “donation” from Tehelka journalists masquerading as middlemen at the then Defence Minister George Fernandes’ residence.  Within days of the revelations, Fernandes had to quit the union cabinet. But he was re-inducted soon thereafter, even before the K Venkataswami Commission probing the Tehelka affair could complete its work.

Political experts debated whether the removal of Fernandes was an expedient move of the Bharatiya Janata Party led government, but no one was in doubt that his reinduction – and Vajpayee’s stout defence of his decision – together with the furore it created in political circles, went a long way in denting the image of the NDA.

'Maun' Mohan Singh

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress party too encountered several occasions when he faced criticism for tainted members in his United Progressive Alliance council of ministers.

The appointment of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren as the minister of coal had become a sore point with the opposition because of  serious criminal charges against him. He was forced to resign from the coal ministry on July 24, 2004 because of a court order in a murder case. Released on bail on September 8, 2004, he was re-inducted into the cabinet and given back the coal ministry on November 27 2004, as part of a deal for a Congress-JMM alliance before assembly elections in Jharkhand in February 2005. He was eventually forced to resign on November 28, 2006 after being found guilty in a 12-year-old case involving the kidnapping and murder of his former personal secretary Shashinath Jha.

In April 2010, even before Singh could complete the first year of his second term in office, he had to remove minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor, for his links with the Kochi Indian Premium League group. Tharoor was re-inducted in October 12, 2012 as minister of state for human resource development.

In 2010, following the Supreme Court intervention, Singh was forced to make Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader and union minister A Raja resign for his alleged role in 2G spectrum allocation scam. In July 2011, another DMK leader, union textile minister Dayanidhi Maran, had to submit his resignation for his alleged role in the same case.

The UPA-II witnessed another spate of resignations in May 2013, when Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal and Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar were removed from the union cabinet. While Bansal was embroiled in a bribery scam, Kumar was under fire from the opposition after the Supreme Court came down heavily on the CBI for allowing the law ministry to vet the draft of the investigative agency’s report on Coalgate scam.

The irony of the situation could not be more stark, for Modi, during his election campaign, continuously taunted Singh for being "Maun" (Silent) Mohan Singh for his silence in many of these cases and not taking any action against ministers who were seen to be tainted till his hand was forced by courts or the situation became untenable in the face of increasing evidence becoming public.

Full circle

Modi, on his part, seems to be following Singh's trajectory when it comes to dealing with the opposition demands for the resignation of tainted ministers: by refusing to utter a word on the subject and hoping the crisis will blow over. But what makes it worse for him is that unlike Singh, he does not have the excuse of "coalition compulsions". And unlike Singh, who remained silent on almost every issue and refused to communicate, Modi is otherwise vociferous and voluble – delivering fiery speeches and sermons, holding his monthly radio talk shows and continuing to tweet even on inconsequential things.

Which is what makes his silence on the recent charges against prominent BJP ministers that much more deafening, particularly as the Congress and the Left parties ratchet up their demands that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje must be removed for their help to former IPL chief Lalit Modi. During the last one year as prime minister, Modi has maintained a similar silence on union minister Nihal Chand, who is facing rape charges, and his two other cabinet colleagues Smriti Irani and Ram Shankar Katheria, who are facing charges pertaining to fake educational degrees.

One may argue that the distinct approach of Modi is at least in part because he has learnt – as Chief Minister of Gujarat – that inaction and silence in view of short public memory, is the best way to deal with such crises. It is this approach that explains why he inducted his close aide Maya Kodnani, who at the time was facing charges of murder during 2002 riots, into his state cabinet in 2007 and why he protected her until she was arrested in 2009.

That was not the only instance of Modi’s curious silence when he was the chief minister. For several years, he didn’t remove the then Gujarat minister of state for home Amit Shah, who was facing charges of kidnapping and murder of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi in 2005. It was only in July 2010, when Shah’s anticipatory bail plea was rejected and his arrest became imminent, that he was removed from the cabinet. Modi’s two other cabinet colleagues in Gujarat – Purshottam Solanki and Babubhai Bokhiria – continued to remain ministers despite facing serious charges of corruption. While Solanki was alleged to have played a central role in Rs 400 crore fishing contract scam, Bokhiria was convicted in 2013 by a Porbandar court in a case of illegal mining of limestone.

Modi would perhaps do well to reflect on the fact that the situation is not quite the same at the Centre in the face of relentless media spotlight and scrutiny. And that his predecessor too was forced to break his silence and impelled to act. There is a lesson for him in what former minister Arun Shourie had pointed out before the latest crisis involving Lalit Modi.
“If you are sending out tweets on Sania Mirza’s victory… and wishing somebody birthday. And then you don’t do it on such an important thing… churches or love-jihad, then draw an inference, which is not good.” “Either you are not speaking at all, then people don’t expect you to speak anything — like with Narasimha Rao… Vinoba Bhave. When Mr Modi’s government acts very quickly in Srinagar floods… or on Nepal, he provides that kind of leadership. But when on moral questions, he is seen as silent, then people wonder why he is not speaking”