THE MODI MYTH
S Nihal Singh
It is awkward to review this book for a variety of reasons. To begin with, the author is among the few surviving venerated editors and the current practice in the ruling establishment of "retiring" elders and not holding them in high esteem is not followed in our profession. Secondly, both in the book and elsewhere, he has bestowed the honour on this writer of having written the most comprehensive biography on the subject of his own book. Does one factor in these points or write a straight review strictly based on the merits and demerits of the book under review?
Because Narendra Modi delivers speeches with such regularity, tweets with such ferocity and makes grand declarations every day, it is a full-time job to chronicle the evolution of his politics. Since he has done precious little in recent months save squandering his mandate, there is little reason for examining consistencies or the lack of it in his words. Yet, the vocal energy that Mr Modi exudes has given rise to an unending stream of publications focussed on him. No Indian leader has had such a voluminous appraisal and that too in such a short period. He remains a polarising leader even when in power.
This book has been somewhat drawn from the author's newspaper columns and this provides a contemporary flavour; readers can breeze it almost as if one is reliving the first 15 months of Mr Modi's tenure. Chapter names demonstrate the curiosity and line of inquiry Mr Modi evoked after coming power: The Idea of India, The Hindu Underpinning, A New Phenomenon, Jai Yoga, Building New Icons and so on. But publishing a book mainly from columns and then adding occasionally to the basic idea can also be self-limiting and this is what happens with the one under review.
There is also the perplexing insertion of a couple of chapters on Arvind Kejriwal and on the other political marvel of the times, his Aam Aadmi Party. True, many, including this writer, find elements of Mr Modi's persona in Mr Kejriwal but is this reason enough to warrant separate chapters on the Delhi chief minister? The inclusion of these chapters would have been justified if any attempt had been made to analyse how the basic persona of the two leaders are mirror images. If one wished to be kind to Mr Kejriwal, he could, at best, be called Chhota Modi!
Having spent a significant part of his professional years as a foreign correspondent, it was only natural that the author would be drawn to Mr Modi's foreign forays, especially as this, too, has been a policy priority area as well as a personal fascination of Mr Modi. The essay Foreign Policy Surprise notes that the "biggest surprise of [Mr] Modi's first year in office has been his major moves in the foreign policy field". The author notes that "few suspected [Mr] Modi had the political acumen and understanding of the complex field of foreign relations." But given the inconsistencies that have stemmed from South Block, can one actually conclude that the premier has shown great uniformity while globetrotting?
During the Bihar Assembly elections, the first sign that things were not going in favour of Mr Modi came in the form of regular jokes on private radio stations. One was particularly nasty: people thought they voted for a prime minister but he turned out to be Vasco de Gama. The author takes stock of Mr Modi's forays in West Asia and comments on his visit to the United Arab Emirates. He also discreetly warns Mr Modi that during any future visit to Israel, he "has to bear in mind that coupling his Israel visit with a trip to the Palestinian territories will not compensate for his befriending the Israeli prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu)."
Though Mr Modi is still struggling with the present and attempting to secure the legitimacy he had during his electoral campaign, the author, like most others, cannot not avoid exploring what the future holds for the prime minister and India. But this is one question that is better left to explorations in newspapers columns, that too to examining the immediate future - at best restricted to a calendar year or till another set of important state elections. This is particularly true as 2015 has been a year on which Mr Modi would want to reflect with the same emotions that he would look back at 2014.
Mr Modi was a myth and the hope he generated was clearly hyped. The author wonders where does the "myth-maker Modi begin and where does he end as the high-tech geek enthusing over the marvels of technology in administration...".
Mr Modi began his journey when India was faced with a void and was rocked by a crisis of confidence. But having reached where he wanted, he began faltering because of the inadequacies for the tasks that he now faces. The author would have been better served if he had examined various programmes that Mr Modi launched and analysed why most remain failures. By restricting himself to generalities, the author has erred on the same lines as Mr Modi.