Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay (Tranquebar Press, 2013, 410 pages. Rs 495)
Biographies of individuals who could end up as the Prime Minister of India have begun making their appearance in a pre-election India gripped by political uncertainty. In the past year, for example, there have been two attempts by three journalists to explain the life and politics of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s media-shy heir apparent. Both books were astonishing in one respect: the authors had never met nor spoken to the Congress Vice President!
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s political biography of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi does not short-change readers with such brazenness. Yet, the fact that the author met the subject of his study for just one lengthy session (he had, of course, interacted with him in earlier years when Modi was a functionary at the BJP central office in Delhi) in May 2012 and completed the back some nine months later suggests that ‘quickies’ are becoming the norm in Indian publishing.
To do justice to his subject, a biographer needs to certainly understand the wider environment in which the individual operates. He certainly needs to engage exhaustively with friends, family, associates and detractors of the person under scrutiny. But these are never a substitute for getting under the skin of and understanding the mind of the subject. For a person whose life is still a work in progress, this is a doubly complex exercise that requires patience, perseverance and doggedness.
It is not that Mukhopadhyay hasn’t tried. He has read most of the secondary articles and reports on Modi; he has spoken to those who dislike Modi within the RSS family; and he has touched base with most of Gujarat’s senior journalists. Indeed, like the reporter who is parachuted into unknown territory, he has followed the drill: first talk to the taxi driver and then imbibe the wisdom of local journalists.
There is only problem with this approach: the local media (with some exceptions) is usually the least well-informed about the Chief Minister. I have seen this in Orissa and I have experienced it in Gujarat. In 2002, for example, there were almost no takers for the couple of seats set aside for media in the leader’s helicopter during the campaign. The media had decided to boycott the ‘monster’, having convinced itself that he was going to lose—a perception bolstered by spurious polls. In 2007, an Ahmedabad journalist asked me to contribute an article on the theme: “Is 2007 Modi’s Waterloo?” And in 2012, Delhi journalists were routinely told by their Gujarat colleagues that the BJP would fall short of a majority.
Mukhopadhyay’s over-dependence on the local media has inevitably led him to replicate the facile conclusions on which the Delhi chatterati has depended in assessing Modi. I was struck, for example, by the complete absence of any inputs from retired or serving bureaucrats on Modi’s approach to administration. It was amusing to see the complete absence of accounts from entrepreneurs and farmers on the business environment of Gujarat. Rather than undertake rigorous groundwork, Mukhopadhyay has relied exclusively on reports that suggest that Modi is no big deal. Likewise, the absence of any discernible inputs from senior BJP figures, many of whom have a strange love-hate relationship with him, is very noticeable. There are umpteen stories of the years Modi spent in ‘exile’, dreaming of a return to Gujarat, and the way he handled the post-2002 assault by the Prime Minister’s Office that would have enriched the of the man. Equally, Mukhopadhyay does not provide any insights into Modi’s troubled relationship with the RSS establishment and how he prevailed.
The fundamental mistake of this biography lies in the belief that the Modi who was an important functionary during the Hindutva mobilisation from the late-1980s to the mid-1990s is the same man who now aspires to be Prime Minister. This is a common mistake of those who covered the Ayodhya movement and were convinced that fascism was round the corner in India.
The most interesting story to be told is how Modi clobbered the likes of Togadia, insulated himself from the RSS’ micro-management and coped with the unrelenting hostility of the Indian Establishment. The Modi who found himself thrust into the unlikely role of ‘Chhote Sardar’ in 2002, redefined the terms on which he would be judged subsequently. In believing, like many still do, that the rise and rise of Narendra Modi is a consequence of crude identity politics is to misread the man completely. Modi’s critics, it would seem, are still judging him on the terms of a debate that surrounded the Ayodhya years. Since then, India has changed, Modi has changed but his detractors are caught in a time warp.
In assessing the “The Times’ which shaped Modi, Mukhopadhyay overlooked the post-1991 economic transformation of India. The vicious 2002 riots were the last gasp of the old politics. What matters is subsequent events, themes that this book leaves under-explored.---Swapan Dasgupta
Business Standard, April 26, 2013