Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the atrocities committed on Dalits in Una, Gujarat, illustrates vividly that he is still caught between a rock and a hard place. As long as he remains rooted there, it will always be his dilemma whether to speak or remain silent on issues of social conflict.

This is because that space is subject to contradictory pulls. As prime minister, he must express sympathy for those who are victims of Hindutva violence. Yet, at the same time, Modi must not alienate Hindutva votaries and Sangh Parivar cadres, without whose support his winning touch will erode.

Until Modi manages to reconcile the two contradictory pulls working on him, he will not speak on incidents in which the perpetrators of violence are Hindutva supporters or the violence reflects hard nationalism.

Silence speaks volumes

Modi has yet to speak on the Kashmir unrest. In the past, he also chose to remain mum on incendiary issues such as love jihad, ghar wapsi, and the public humiliation of Christians allegedly engaged in conversion.

He did speak on the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in September but it was so belated that it seemed to have been in response to the mounting public dismay or, even worse, as an afterthought. This is why Modi’s intervention did not assure anyone nor did it portray him as one disturbed at the grisly occurrence just 30 km from his residence.

In an increasingly cynical, and polarised, India, a good many don’t expect Modi to speak on violent incidents in which the religious minorities are the victims. After all, they don’t vote for him. By contrast, their assailants are Hindutva followers who are ardent supporters of Modi, or are Hindus inclined to transit to the Hindutva ideological camp.

This is why Modi’s silence on Una is inexplicable to many. The victims there were Dalits, who are still preponderantly Hindu, despite the trend among them to convert to other religions, primarily Buddhism.

Then again, for over two years, Modi has been invested heavily in winning Dalit support. This plan Una seems to have unraveled. It has, for sure, revived Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati’s fortunes overnight. Couldn’t Modi have expressed sorrow over Una to limit the damage to his plan of luring Dalits into the Bharatiya Janata Party camp?

No, he couldn’t have.

To understand this answer, you must rewind to track Modi’s rise, to analyse why he slipped into the space between the rock and the hard place.

A belligerent Hindutva

Modi’s rise has been predicated not on Hindutva that is mellow but belligerent. Whether he deliberately allowed the flames of communal rioting in 2002 to rage can be debated forever. But there is no denying that he did exploit the rioting and its aftermath to grow from strength to strength. For instance, he dissolved the Gujarat Assembly nine months before its term was to expire in order to take advantage of the Hindu consolidation in an early election.

When Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh refused to advance the election, Modi took to pronouncing Lyngdoh’s full name – that is, James Michael Lyngdoh – to highlight his Christian identity. It was a way of portraying that a conspiracy of minorities was afoot, under the leadership of a Christian Sonia Gandhi, to deny the leader of Hindus his legitimate right to power. He was now the new Hindu Hriday Samrat or Emperor of Hindu Hearts. This image he cultivated for a few years.

However, Modi altered his persona a year or two before the 2012 Assembly election, in preparation to launch his career nationally. He became Mr Development, who could develop India and provide jobs to its citizens.

These two facets – Hindu emperor and Mr Development – won him the support of two large sections of the Indian electorate. One comprised Hindutva supporters, as also those Hindus for whom their religious identity mattered immensely. Then there was the large contingent of floating voters genuinely wanting India to develop and opposed to corruption, which had become the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s defining feature.

The very word floating conveys impermanence and fickleness; floating voters are liable to shift their political preferences every election. In other words, the foundation or core of Modi’s spectacular electoral edifice is Hindutva supporters, whose number is augmented by adding floating voters to them. No leader angers his core supporters to keep the floaters happy, just as a building with additional floors is bound to collapse if the foundation weakens somehow.

This is why it is illogical to expect Modi to calm down the minorities reeling under anxieties and fears. This is because these emotions have been engendered on account of the activities of Hindutva hotheads, who have embraced such divisive causes as love jihad, ghar wapsi, religious conversion and anti-cow slaughter.

The caste factor

To speak about the anxieties of minorities is to also impliedly condemn a belligerent Hindutva, whose votaries would veer around to perceiving Modi as yet another prime minister who is trying to pamper or, to borrow from their lexicon, appease them.

A flawed reading of Hindutva is why many are surprised over Modi’s silence on Una. They think Hindutva’s principal goal is to overcome caste contradiction to unify Hindus. This is indeed what the classical theory of Hindutva tells us. In reality, though, Hindu unity is sought to thwart the subaltern challenge to the hegemony of those located higher in the Hindu social order.

No doubt, cow-protection groups will have activists from different social groups. But the idea of the cow as holy is an element of Brahmanical Hinduism. It is this idea which drives cow-protectionists to hunt for their quarries. They have an abiding faith in Hindutva. They are also Modi’s avid supporters.

For Modi, to condemn Una unequivocally, on the day it began to grab media headlines, would have also meant severely reprimanding cow-protectionists. They – and people like them – are both Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s core supporters. He cannot alienate them to mollify the angry but floating Dalit voters, whose allegiance to him might not even be durable. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush” is a profound adage.

This is why Modi must remain silent and watch his attempts to co-opt Dalits getting undone.

This is more so because he belongs to the Other Backward Classes. His strong condemnation of Una is bound to have a different meaning for upper castes, who dominate Hindutva, not necessarily in numbers, but in terms of defining the Sangh’s ethos.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee could condemn Hindutva violence. He was, after all, a Brahmin. Modi’s condemnation of Una would be perceived as a portent of radicalism or caste assertion unacceptable to Hindutva. It doesn’t matter whether caste or religion matters more to Modi. What is infinitely more pertinent here is the perception of Hindutva supporters, not his own.

For this reason as well, Silence has become the name of the space between the rock and the hard place that Modi occupies.

Modi stepped into this space because of the choices he made. It is only he who can extricate himself from it. But for that, he will have eschew making electoral calculations all the time and turn his eye on history. Nobody goes into history without a halo around their heads. That demands social morality. Silence over Una reflects social immorality.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.