NARENDRA MODI: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY
A question frequently put to me after my book on Narendra Modi was published was: why had I written it? Did I write it because Mr Modi was the man of the moment and any book that took on the Gujarat strongman was bound to get noticed? The book was preceded by a minor storm, created by a sensation-seeking headline writer who wrote a blurb to introduce exclusive excerpts published in the magazine where (s)he worked. It described the book as an "authorised-turned-unauthorised" biography. Though untrue, this gave the book a certain "slant" and potential readers were given an idea of what to expect from the book - that it was not a very flattering account of the subject. This notion was accentuated when the book was reviewed in these columns by an ardent supporter of Mr Modi. The reviewer argued that the principal limitation of the book was that it continued to look at Mr Modi primarily through the prism of 2002.
Most non-fiction books are framed in the backdrop of previous professional engagements and works of the writer. The majority of serious books on Indian politics and political personalities have been written by authors who have spent considerable years researching and writing on the subject. In recent months, there has been a flurry of books on Mr Modi; most have been written by writers and journalists with some experience on the subject. In the case of some, the subject of the book chose itself once the author was ready and reached a "now or never" moment.
There are, however, times when authors are chosen by the subject; this appears to be true of the book under review. The author of this book has never written previously on Indian politics and his earlier books have nothing to do with Mr Modi and his brand of politics. One of his books, The Door, is described as a "thrill-a-minute fantasy adventure, touring surreal, sometimes high-tech neighbourhoods populated by souls working towards something called Ascension". Obviously, there were other considerations behind the choice of the author and why he was given "unprecedented access to a very private man".
This view was buttressed after what Coomi Kapoor wrote recently in her widely read behind-the-scenes column in The Indian Express. She wrote what had been known and whispered for several weeks: that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was distributing the book to foreign journalists who made a beeline to India for writing on Mr Modi and Indian elections. This was obviously done because the book was considered closest to a handout.
Why, if I may ask with an element of trepidation, has the book been distributed free to only foreign journalists? Why have Indian journalists not been given this book? Or, for that matter, why has this book been distributed and not the other recent one written by another Indian journalist who also did not hide his starry-eyed approach to Mr Modi? Is it because even after 67 years of independence, despite claims to the contrary, the BJP suffers from a form of colonial hang-up? Is it because a "character certificate" has greater value if it comes from a foreigner, preferably someone who has white skin?
I agreed to review this book with a hope that it would provide further insights into the man whose politics is of interest. Maybe the access yielded some hitherto unknown facets of the man, especially about issues on which he does not wish to speak. Unfortunately, the book is a breathless account of Mr Modi and his life; it is written with the primary intention of providing the "right" perspective to balance out those tomes that scrutinise the man and do not give a larger-than-life account of him.
It is often said by Mr Modi's supporters that his 12-year-long tenure has been defined by allegations regarding his complicity with rioters during six days in 2002. Just as the anti-Modi discourse has focused primarily on establishing his responsibility, this book concentrates considerably on negating that criticism. As a result, the discourse over Mr Modi does not progress an inch. For instance, just as Mr Modi's critics shy away from exploring the reasons why the people of Gujarat have given him a clear mandate on three occasion since 2002, this book makes no attempt to analyse why his electoral performance in the Lok Sabha polls has not so far matched that during the Assembly elections. This book is also short on analysis and is liberal with doses of justification for each of Mr Modi's actions.
In the eyes of Mr Modi's consistent critics, he is capable of nothing good. Likewise, in the eyes of admirers like Andy Marino, Mr Modi is incapable of any wrongdoing. Take, for instance, the recent controversy regarding tracking call records of a young woman, an architect; the actions of the state government are justified on three counts: that the family sought surveillance, that the woman was being stalked by Pradeep Sharma (there is no explanation as to why tracking call records of the accused did not suffice), and that the woman did not lodge a complaint against violation of her privacy.
Writing biographies of active political leaders is challenging. Writers have to decide early on if they are committed to the reader or to the subject. The space between a breathless account and a damning narrative is extremely narrow. Unfortunately, this book makes no such effort. Probably because it was not intended to explore that space.