The Gujarat Chief Minister’s assiduously crafted persona is worryingly at odds with the reality

Govindan Nair

he prospect of Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister of India has galvanised political discourse and whetted the appetite for stories about the man. Mukhopadhyay and Nag, veteran journalists who have covered Gujarat and tracked Modi for years, are well placed to bring the narrative to date. Their alacrity in producing the volumes under review is commendable, more so their putative objective of neither lionising nor demonising their subject, of recording a biography that “would not be a hagiography”. In balance, however, the misgivings raised by the two books outweigh any reassurance they may provide about Modi the politician and Modi the man.

Meticulously tracing Modi’s evolution from a deprived childhood in tiny Vadnagar distributing badges as a six-year old for the statehood of Gujarat, his ostensibly unconsummated child marriage from which he fled to spend a mysterious interlude of wandering and seeking, to his admission to the RSS as a rare Backward Caste face, his remarkable feats of organisation in the Gujarat BJP, including the rath yatras of Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, to becoming the first RSS pracharak to be a chief minister, the books under review underscore his drive and sense of purpose, leadership and innate political sense, and keen awareness of the importance of image-building.

Modi today projects a larger-than-life persona of an austere workaholic, an alpha-male passionately striving for the protection and betterment of his flock, renouncing personal comfort and gain for the larger good. “Even today”, he insists, “it is not in me to become somebody important — to grab a post, such desires are not part of me”. Indeed he avers that he was disinclined to accept chief ministership, which was forced on him by the high command. Mukhopadyay, however, disagrees: “Modi was not exactly a reluctant chief minister despite his protestations”; he had lobbied for the post with the central leadership for years knowing that the Gujarat BJP would not have elected him.

Consummate politician

“Modi is a full-time and consummate politician”, one of his ministers is reported to have remarked. “Every waking moment of his day is spent thinking and strategising power play.” Nag notes that when Modi was appointed Chief Minister “little did the party leaders realise that they were unleashing a chief minister who would, within just a year, become so powerful that he would care for just about nobody in the party.” What transpired during that year was a murderous attack on a train and a retaliatory communal bloodbath — Modi’s defining moment, albeit fortuitous.

In Mukhopadhyay’s words: “If the Godhra incident had not occurred and if that had not been followed by the orgy of violence, Narendra Modi would not have been what he subsequently became — and in all probability there would have been no need to write this biography.” Nag observes that “any government that showed such indifference in controlling carnage elsewhere in the country would have been dismissed and the state put under President’s Rule.” Not only did Modi survive, he grew to personify Gujarati asmita (self-pride) . Today, as undisputed lord of the state, Modi revels in the catchphrase “Modi is Gujarat and Gujarat is Modi”. In the 2012 election he exhorted voters to ignore individual candidates of his party and cast their vote for him. But not a single Muslim candidate was fielded by his party and Gujarati asmita evidently does not embrace minorities. Mukhopadhyay concludes from his interviews that “Modi strongly believes that if minorities wished to coexist and feel safe in the state governed by him, it was mandatory for them to abide by the beliefs and value systems of the majority community”.

Modi excels in an adversarial role, theorises Nag. The enemy for him is the secular establishment, Nehruvian traditions and the liberal press — he admits a “strong hatred towards the Congress” from childhood. Having grown to political maturity in the shadow of the Ayodhya dispute, Modi owed his electoral successes to Gujarat’s conversion into a “laboratory of Hindutva”. Confident of mass support arising from the Hindutva credo, latterly Modi has aimed to bolster his popular appeal by donning the mantle of Vikas Purush. The huge gaps in state’s development record, especially in health and nutrition, and the fact that the much touted ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ business jamborees produce negligible investment on the ground are, however, well known.

Embellishing his image as a man of action, Modi likes to be portrayed as a modern-day Vivekananda, a monk with a mission. In his words: “I am not religious but I am definitely spiritual.” “Even now I have not completely returned to the material world … I felt that if I have to do something then I have to become part of some system, some structure.” Probed by Mukhopadhyay about his role as a leader, he says: “I think it is probably a god-gifted ability … Even I do not know how God gets me to do these things or how I come to get these ideas.”

Modi’s is an assiduously crafted persona that is worryingly at odds with the reality. Few people know him at the personal level; and what little is revealed about his personal life is carefully vetted and scripted by his hard-working public relations apparatus. The books under review dispel several myths surrounding the man: his self-abnegating austerity and Spartan lifestyle, his inherently democratic and large-hearted nature, his selflessness, truthfulness, humility and so on. An intractable adversary, unwilling to forget or forgive and intolerant of contrary views, Modi emerges as hugely-ambitious, self-obsessed, over-bearing and authoritarian, a street-fighter with a mordacious tongue, a man given to habitual dissembling and pretence, unwilling to brook resistance to his ambitions.

In sum, these books will enable readers to make their own assessment of Modi as a prime ministerial aspirant and to conjecture about the next episode in his saga. Mukhopadhyay, who was granted extensive interviews with his subject, has attempted a magisterial biography (nearly 400 pages), but Modi ceased to cooperate in the later stages of the project and the book suffers from poor editing. Less ambitious Nag succinctly reviews the political evolution of Gujarat and of his protagonist.

( Govindan Nair is a retired civil servant now based in Chennai )