A Missed Chance, But Still Worth the Time Reading

First published by Swarajya, April 28, 2015


While there are hundreds if not thousands of books written on the two men who steered and were at the helm of the Indian independence movement – Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – there is very little written, in any depth or with enough care, about other Indian leaders, big or small, pre-independence or post-independence. Even Indira Gandhi, who embodied Kali on the Indian scene for nearly two decades, has been overlooked by academics and pundits, journalists and fellow travelers.

So, it is interesting to speculate how Narendra Modi is going to be presented and studied by both Indian and foreign writers, and though he has been vilified and typecast as a demonic force in various reports by an array of Indian and Western observers, he has rarely been studied closely, either as a person or as a public actor. But after leading the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a massive parliamentary win last year, he has begun to attract attention-although reluctantly and with a certain amount of hostility-but the gaze is on him.

Let us take a look at the work done recently by outsiders, who have used their foreign lenses to analyse the man. First came Andy Marino with his book “Narendra Modi: A Political Biography” (March/September, 2014). This book, which to some seems like a hagiography, has been otherwise mostly ignored by reviewers, and that is a shame. It is a shame that the Indian academe and media have been so loathe to objectively study the Indian/Hindu non-Left opposition — they are not and do not constitute the “Right” in the Western political/religious/ideological sense because the Indian/Hindu “right” is only in opposition to the monopolistic and supremacist claims of religious/political others.

What we have had instead are mostly a shelf-full of angry, selectively sourced, manipulative tomes with Marxist/Feminist/Freudian undertones demonizing the “Sangh” as fascist, patriarchal and militant, and the aftermath of the February 2002 Godhra terrorist attack by a mob, masterminded by forces internal and external termed as a “genocide” and laid at the feet of Modi.

Given the shrill and sustained campaign of demonizing the man who had just then taken charge (Modi was appointed Chief Minister in October 2001) in the volatile and complicated context of Gujarat politics, and a devastating earthquake in 2001 January that had taken the lives of more than 20,000 people and shattered the economy, he became the bogeyman for the lot at Lutyens’ Delhi, who had become accustomed to being fed the daily dose of populist/left/secular politics of the Congress Party, and the cacophonous blather by the assorted regional parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This lot is still chafing, almost a year after the triumphant win of the BJP, and the methodical cleansing of the stable cluttered with the corruption and contracts negotiated by the Congress Party with its now double-headed leadership of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

Narendra Modi, who is now the Prime Minister of India, is indeed a unique figure in modern Indian politics. He has his weaknesses – grooming himself carefully and impressively – some might say, and he is a politician, but that he has been the primary target of the secular/progressive/left in India, and their entrenched and powerful backers and supporters in Western politics and academe, should attract more careful and thoughtful attention from serious scholars and independent/objective journalists. Alas, that has not been so.

Given that context, and the diffidence, if not the indifference, of the entrenched academic and media cabals in approaching him as a man and not a murderer, we should be glad to welcome the rare and the spare offerings, which now include Lance Price’s “The Modi Effect”, which despite the author’s protestations of being an objective and independent effort, still has not attracted enough attention from scholars and reviewers six weeks after it hit the shelves in bookstores.

This reviewer listened to one short interview of Price on John Hockenberry’s “Takeaway” show on National Public Radio, where Mr. Hockenberry made wild claims about thousands of Muslims being killed in Gujarat in 2002 when that unverifiable claim is now rejected even by left/liberal newspapers like The New York Times, whose correspondents and members on the editorial board have carried on a sustained campaign of vilification of Modi, and in particular of the Sangh Parivar. The other interview this author has listened to is the one organized by The Woodrow Wilson Center, which by the way was a strange interview because Narayan Lakshman of The Hindu, whose editors are virulently opposed to Modi and the Sangh Parivar, was offered the platform at the Center to respond to and play the pony in the dog-and-pony Price presentation!

The first question that was first posed to Price at The Woodrow Wilson Center was “Why you?” Price was the media adviser for Tony Blair and Director of Communications for the Labour Party, and throughout the book his self-referential comments about that background, and about his left/liberal bias, and how if he were to have had the privilege of voting in India he would not have voted for Modi goes to show that if Modi and the BJP were to have any traction in academe and in the mainstream media in the West (which would also include the majority White/Anglo world of Australia, New Zealand) they needed someone like a Price to pitch their story and their credentials to these cabals. Price does not say who he would have voted for if he had the privilege, but the “I am a liberal” sticker he wears on his sleeve may have played a part in Modi’s calculation to use Price to tell the story of the Mission 272+ 2013/2014 campaign.

Coming to the story of the campaign (Mission 272+) itself, Price does a fairly decent job, as Shashi Shekhar, who was closely involved in the campaign tells us. We get details of behind-the-scenes players and parts, challenges and triumphs, details missed by many in the Indian media, where reporting still amounts to covering the superficial and stating the obvious. However, Price’s book is not an intellectually satisfying book, and despite his access to Modi and to his team he does not bother to ask the right questions and all of the questions – about the BJP’s and Modi’s political, economic, and philosophical leanings, the challenges of governing India, the conflicted nature of Indian democracy in an over-crowded neighborhood that is fraught with nuclear tension and religious divisions. So, this same superficiality is obvious in the 90-minute Woodrow Wilson Center meeting/interview.

I too met Mr. Modi, once, for a nearly two-hour interview, late at night in his then old, rather decrepit office in Gandhinagar in June 2003. That meeting/interview was to ask the man himself to recount the details and the context of the 2002 Gujarat Assembly election which led Modi to come back to power as Chief Minister of Gujarat when the world was baying for his blood. The manuscript, completed in early 2004 did not see the light of day, but if it does, updated to include the latest information on him and his aspirations, I hope that readers would acknowledge the context within which one has to read Modi the man, and understand the nature of Indian politics.

Price, in his wish to be seen as non-partisan, gives an inordinate amount of space, for example, to the rather predictable prognostications of Zoya Hasan, the retired professor of political science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and to a variety of Modi naysayers, without challenging them in any detailed or sustained manner about the rot they contributed to but as merely foils for the “other side”. He also does not look carefully at the Congress Party leadership and uses the usual tropes on and about Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Dr. Manmohan Singh, and the variety of glib spokespersons and actors from the Congress stable who used the most vicious of language and cunning of tricks to derail and defang Modi over the course of fourteen long years.

He pays only passing attention to Modi the man, and where and how he got his energy and his discipline. Even when he is asked the question at the Wilson Center he does not have much of an inkling about yoga and meditation, about nishkama karma and the lessons that the smritis and the shastras that Modi has studied and imbibed. Sure, a few other charismatic political leaders in the modern world are highly energetic, but they are also known to get their energy not from some internal source but through their interaction with people and being at the helm of affairs, say someone like a Bill Clinton. Here again, Price as an outsider has limitations, and also unfortunately is not very curious about these matters.

To be fair, Price is not an academic or scholar but a media adviser and practitioner who has spent most of his time and energies in the context of British politics. If he had done more careful homework, however, he might have been able to raise the quality of his tome a notch or two.

Still, it is a start, and is worth a careful read.


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