Vice President Hamid Ansari during an official visit to Peru in 2013. Photo:  Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Peru.

What is amazing about the controversy swirling over why Vice President Hamid Ansari did not participate in the Guinness Book record setting “Yoga School” on Raj Path on Sunday is that the attack emanated not from the intemperate and narrow-minded fringe of the sangh parivar but from Ram Madhav, a responsible leader who was inducted into national politics to serve as a vital link between the Bharatiya Janata Party and its master, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Madhav scurried to delete his tweet when he discovered he had jumped the gun without ascertaining the facts. Unfortunately for him, technology allows others to preserve his indiscretion ad infinitum.

Hamid Ansari has been a target for the social media “bhakts” – the fans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and self-appointed guardians of Indian honour – for some time now. The trouble with them is that they enter a discourse when prejudice has already overtaken debate and a cyber posse is galloping to lynch the object of their pursuit. Hardly anyone knows the past service of the individual who is being hunted, or the facts other than how framed by the cyber mob.

In January this year, the bhakts sought to whip up a frenzy over why the Vice President did not salute the national flag at the Republic Day Reviewing Stand, during the visit of President Barak Obama.

Ansari is a former diplomat who served as Chief of Protocol in the early 1980s. In fact, he was honoured with a Padma award over his successful handling of the Non-Aligned Summit. When I served as Deputy Secretary to the President of India (1983-87), I saw him interact frequently with Rashtrapati Bhawan. He is thus more familiar with existing protocol norms than perhaps any of his predecessors. The salute was being given by the Commandant of the President’s Body Guards. As per the norm, only the President was to respond by saluting back. In fact, the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and his deputy were ill-advised to have saluted. In the army, if senior officers are walking in a group, then any salute made to them is responded to only by the senior-most amongst them. To expect the cyber mob to have the patience to learn all this would be wishful thinking when it is easier to simply join the mob and succumb to base human instincts.

Similarly, at least Ram Madhav, who is the link between the BJP and RSS and who expounds on the NDA government’s foreign policy, besides travelling abroad in advance of the Prime Minister to rally the diaspora, should have known that if Prime Minister is the chief guest at an event, then the Vice President, who is above him in protocol, cannot be a participant. Moreover someone had to invite him to the function and assign him a role. Since neither of these conditions applied, where was the question of Ansari being at fault?

It would be useful to remember that in 1993, following the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992,, when Pakistan was churning opinion in the Islamic world against India, the then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao quickly sent Hamid Ansari as Ambassador to the United Nations at New York.

India braved the international storm without lasting damage to its credentials as a tolerant and secular country. The nation owes a debt to Ansari for using his knowledge of Arabic and Islam during a trying period internationally and not allowing an egregious act of communal vandalism in Ayodhya to undermine the faith the rest of the world had in India’s democratic credentials.

What is saddening is that when errant behaviour or despicable discourse emanates from members of the Prime Minister’s party and even his inner circle, he responds with silence. He may be cracking the whip behind closed doors, but his global call for a holistic approach to yoga by harmonising the physical, mental and spiritual planes needs to be reflected in his promptly distancing himself from cant and prejudice amongst his followers in the real and the cyber worlds.

India needs Modi to be a karma-yogi not just a yoga contortionist.

K.C. Singh is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs.