‘The Paradoxical Prime Minister — Narendra Modi and His India’ review: The face behind the mask

Accidental prime minister? No, Narendra Modi is far from that. Is Modi a self-obsessed prime minister? He certainly is. Apart from what Shashi Tharoor has written about the narcissistic nature of our PM (“the one area Narendra Modi has succeeded in is his own self-projection”), the cover image of the book under review illustrates it strikingly. But it is the title of the book (The Paradoxical Prime Minister: Narendra Modi and His India), when contrasted with its contents, which raises a question. Wouldn’t ‘The Failed Prime Minister’ be a more appropriate title for the book? This is because Tharoor probes Modi’s failures far more — and in a somewhat excessively partisan way — than his manifestly paradoxical personality and performance. Almost all the 50 rather disparate essays in this book highlight Modi’s failures.

Tall promises

True, Modi’s performance falls far short of his tall promises, and people’s (also many of his erstwhile admirers’) disillusionment is growing fast. Tharoor may or may not be right in his prediction that “this disastrous government will be gone” in 2019, but many will agree with him when he writes: “The liberal mask has long since fallen off. The gap has widened. The result is another paradox: a prime minister of lofty ambition, laid low by underachievement.”

In the section ‘Moditva and Misgovernance’, Tharoor can scarcely be contradicted when he questions the PM’s empty claim about ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’, to which the author confesses “to being attracted” initially. However, a neutral reader could well ask: “But weren’t these and other examples of misgovernance true also of the previous Congress (UPA) government?” Tharoor is largely silent on the shortcomings of his own party’s long, and not always praiseworthy, stints in governance. This has greatly contributed to the partisan nature of the book.

The writer’s block

Tharoor’s inability to be non-partisan highlights the paradoxes in his own personality and politics. For example, he justifiably bemoans: “Why shouldn’t our politics allow for mutual expressions of respect across the political divide? Why should we not, by praising politicians on the other side when they say or do the right thing, raise the bar for the standards by which we can judge their subsequent conduct? Why shouldn’t we be able to see or hear the good things said or done by those we fundamentally disagree with or oppose?” His conclusion from these questions is indisputable: “It reduces our democracy to a zero-sum game where everything done by one side is automatically bad and unacceptable to the other.”

Sadly, Tharoor rejects his own wise prescription by slamming just about every aspect of Modi’s soon-to-end five years in office. This pattern of the government and the opposition seeing each other as sworn enemies can be seen in almost all other areas of politics and national life. Here, the PM is more at fault. Is it the same Modi who tweeted “Let’s work together to create a better India!” to Tharoor, on the day of the latter’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections? Was he really honest? If he was, his party wouldn’t have come up with the arrogantly undemocratic slogan: “Congress-mukt Bharat”.

For any Indian PM or political leader, finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue and normalising India-Pakistan relations pose the greatest challenge. Tharoor’s own self-contradictions in his longish essay ‘The India-Pakistan Yo-Yo’ are obvious. He disapproves of his party colleague (without mentioning the name) Mani Shankar Aiyar’s oft-repeated stand on “uninterruptible” talks with Islamabad “even if new terrorist strikes emanating from Pakistan were to occur”. On the other hand, he also writes: “[i]nsisting that Pakistan must change fundamentally before India can make peace with it is not particularly realistic. A creative Indian government must seize on whatever straws in the wind float its way from Pakistan to explore the prospects of peace.”

The Kashmir question

On the one hand, he “requires us to see the Pakistani military not just as the problem, but as a vital element of the solution”. (He is entirely right in this.) Yet, he advocates that “we should open our doors and hearts to Pakistanis who have nothing to do with the military establishment” (He is right on the first part, and wrong on the italicised part.) In the same breath, he also seems to endorse Modi’s manifestly failed hawkish line: “[p]unish each incident of violence by freezing official talks or by surgical strikes” and “We must not be deluded into making concessions, whether on Kashmir or any other issue.” (Here he is completely wrong.)

Tharoor surely knows that “the two countries came extremely close to a definitive conclusion on a number of pending issues, including Kashmir” when Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh were India’s prime ministers and General Pervez Musharraf was Pakistan’s president. Could it have happened, and can it ever happen, without India, as much as Pakistan, “making concessions” on Kashmir?

Tharoor is one of the most cerebral — and balanced — Indian politicians. He is entitled to his criticism of Modi. But he could have written a more incisive, analytical and non-partisan account of the paradoxical prime minister, his communally polarising politics and his disappointing governance.

The Paradoxical Prime Minister: Narendra Modi and His India; Shashi Tharoor, Aleph, ₹799.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 12:15:18 PM |

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