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- The making of a prime minister

Narendra Modi: A political biography By Andy Marino, HarperCollins, Rs 599

This book is based on around half-a-dozen interviews taken by Andy Marino of his subject, long hours of travel in close proximity with the politician, careful observation and a year-long research that involved considerable poring over newspaper articles and reading material supplied by the Gujarat government. The result may not be something as embarrassing as a hagiography, but the cold objectivity that Marino had hoped for seems to have dissolved in the warmth of the hospitality received by the author in the alien environs of India.

Whatever the mystery behind Marino’s choice of subject (given that his two earlier books were on unsung heroes standing up to Nazi persecution), or behind Marino’s selection to script Narendra Modi’s story, presumably for an eager readership outside India, one thing is certain — Marino is in awe of his subject. As witness to a mammoth party machinery geared up to promote Modi as the BJP prime ministerial candidate and caught amidst a national campaign in full swing sometime in 2012, this is perhaps an entirely expected reaction. What Marino was encountering in his year-long engagement with Indian politics was a self-assured Narendra Modi, in his third term as the chief minister of Gujarat, with the worst behind him. The image of the man and his vision, scrupulously developed over the years, were already air-dried, packaged and ready for consumption. It perhaps needed the flair of the pen of someone like Marino, uncorrupted by native debates, to make it more marketable. It goes without saying that Marino has delivered.

Take the fleshing out of Modi the man, whose contours were there before Marino when he watched Modi address rallies without a teleprompter, a man who Marino knew can be “decisive, firm, unyielding.” Marino traces Modi’s ability to think out of the box from his questioning of teachers about the methodology of teaching as a child, or from the occasional advice he would give to his mother about how domestic chores could be done differently. Marino also self-consciously recounts some of the now-famous ‘Bal Narendra’ stories about Modi swimming in crocodile-infested water.

The one theme that Marino pushes hard is Modi’s capability of self-denial, revealed during his early experiments in asceticism when he first stopped eating salt and then chillies and oil. This saw him through penury during his wanderings like that of Vivekananda, his childhood idol, between 17 to 19 years of age, the difficult life of a RSS pracharak and even during a stint as the BJP national general secretary in the capital when he virtually lived out of a suitcase. The “detachment” made it possible for Modi to remain a perpetual “outsider” in his party while moulding it at the same time. It also made it possible for him to “walk away from it all” in 1995, when despite his hard work behind the BJP’s spread in Gujarat and organization of the many yatras, he was out manoeuvred by his detractor, Shankersinh Vaghela, and banished from the state. Marino himself notices Modi’s “calm, phlegmatic, almost monk-like” disposition while talking about politics. And so as not to put anyone in doubt, Modi himself admits to Marino, “I have no attachment, so wherever I am, I am fully involved.”

Apart from establishing Modi’s affinity with the other Narendra, the monk, this helps Marino’s conceptualization of Modi as a committed, selfless worker who is always a victim — be it of intra-party politics or vilification campaigns run by political opponents. Although Marino acknowledges shrewdness and patience to be the most consistent elements in Modi’s personality, he cannot bring himself to seeing Modi react to political disappointment and setbacks by plotting revenge. Even at the risk of robbing Modi of any claim to being an astute tactician, Marino is willing to believe that he had no role in fomenting trouble for either Vaghela or Keshubhai Patel in Gujarat after his banishment to Delhi.

Reason? “Portraying Modi as an ambitious schemer itching to get his hands on Gujarat from 1998 onwards makes him psychologically plausible as complicit in the riots of 2002. In other words, with hindsight, a narrative about Modi as a ruthless, self-serving politician has been intrinsic to the campaign against him which would gather pace as he rose to prominence in Gujarat, and then across India.” Protecting Modi’s reputation is such an onerous duty for Marino that he avoids dealing with Modi’s exploits in Himachal Pradesh, where, as the BJP national general secretary (organization), he is known to have played a crucial role in making and unmaking governments before his return to Gujarat in 2002.

Marino’s most important responsibility seems to be putting the record straight for Modi for the 2002 riots. This he does by putting forward in toto what has been the sangh parivar stand on the issue for years — the Godhra fire was a Pakistan-hatched conspiracy, the communal riots were a culmination of years of animosity bred by the Congress’s pursuit of KHAM strategy, Congressmen were equally involved in the carnage, Hindus died together with Muslims, there was no abdication of responsibility on the part of Modi, he was unfairly targeted by the English language media and that several other states and other leaders have got away with worse. The only difference is that Modi speaks up for himself, giving a blow-by-blow account of his administrative response in the first few crucial days. He also says what he has not said before — that despite his fervent request, no soldiers could be made available when they could have made a difference because the army was tied up with Operation Parakram.

Marino’s efforts, however sincere, are unlikely to convince the diehard believers of Modi’s culpability. What could is his enumeration of the ways in which Modi has driven focus away from that blot in his career and concentrated it instead on his other achievements with Gujarat’s economy, if not its society. In Marino’s discussion on Modi’s redefinition of his agenda as “justice for all, favouritism to none”, his management of the bureaucracy, industry, farmers, decentralization of governance, his extrapolation of the panchamrut of water, energy, people, education and security as pillars of development, we begin to get a whiff of what India might expect to see from the prime minister in the next few months, if not years, in matters of governance. Marino’s biography of Modi was perhaps intended to convert the fence-sitters into Modi supporters (and convince a foreign readership of Modi’s sincerity) at the crucial hour before the country went to the polls. There have been many new converts to Moditva, as the election results show. But Marino perhaps had nothing to do with it.