When Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally broke his silence over the week-end to come down heavily on cow vigilante groups, his remarks were widely seen as a belated attempt to address the growing Dalit protests in his home state Gujarat.

While there is no doubt that a jittery Modi was seeking to placate angry Dalits with an eye on next year’s Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat, the pressing need to protect his personal image internationally also compelled Modi to react to the activities of the self-styled gau rakshaks or cow protectors.

“His remarks were aimed both at the domestic and the international audience,” remarked a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader. “The Prime Minister wants to assure foreign powers and investors that he is in control and on top of the game.”

Modi has travelled the globe in the last two years that he has been in office to build his personal profile on the international circuit and to hard sell India as an attractive destination for foreign investors. In this context, he has pitched himself as a powerful and popular leader who is set to transform the country’s economic landscape by throwing open the doors to foreign investments and ease the rules for doing business in the country.

However, the growing incidences of intolerance and the spate of violent attacks on Modi’s watch have the potential of ruining this carefully constructed narrative. Reports about these incidents, which are regularly splashed by the foreign media, have not been received well by the international community. These incidents can put off foreign investors who believe that social harmony is critical for the successful conduct of business in a country. For instance, worried foreign companies in Gurgaon were apprehensive about continuing their operations when Haryana was roiled by the Jat agitation in February in which 30 persons were killed and over 200 injured.

At the same time, the continuing attacks also tend to reinforce the widely held perception that Modi remains a polarising figure despite his efforts to project himself as a unifier. Modi was internationally denounced for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots and was even denied a visa by the United States. This was extremely galling for Modi who has gone out of his way after winning the 2014 Lok Sabha election, to convince the world that he can be trusted.

Having succeeded in this effort so far, there is a genuine fear that Modi’s international image will take a beating if he is unable to restore order. It is felt that all this hard work could come undone if the violence is allowed to continue unchecked.

Reaching out

Besides addressing the international community, Modi’s reaction to the ongoing activities of cow protection vigilante groups was equally aimed at reaching out to angry Dalits who have taken to the streets to protest the recent incident where a group of Dalit boys were publicly beaten by gau rakshaks in Gujarat’s Una district for skinning a dead cow. Slamming cow protection groups at a town hall programme on Saturday, Modi remarked:

“I feel really angry at the way some people have opened shops in the name of cow protection.”

He followed this up with even stronger statement while addressing BJP workers in Hyderabad on Sunday:

“We will have to strive hard to protect our nation from such anti-social elements. We will have to expose such people. If you want to attack, attack me and not Dalits. If you want to shoot, shoot me and not Dalits”

Although there have been several such incidents reported from different states after the Modi government came to power, he never reacted to them. The Gujarat developments, however, finally pushed him to break his silence on the growing unrest among Dalits in his home state.

Not only is Gujarat headed for Assembly elections next year, but also this incident has national ramifications. Dalits across the country have reacted angrily to the manner in which the activities of these gau rakshaks have gone unchecked, especially in the BJP-ruled states, strengthening the belief that they enjoy the patronage of the ruling party.

These developments could not have come at a worse time for Modi as he has been made concerted efforts over the past several months to woo the Dalits, especially in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. However, the Gujarat incident has upset his calculations. Not only does it pose a serious problem for the BJP’s Dalit outreach campaign in Uttar Pradesh but Modi also has to contend with a tough situation in his home state where the agitations by the Patidars and Dalits have led to a serious churning in the state.

Consequently, Modi had to move in quickly. He first replaced Anandiben Patel as chief minister because of her failure to handle the Patel and Dalit agitations. He followed this up with his strong statements in favour of Dalits while coming down hard on the gau rakshaks.