A balanced book that portrays a driven man…
On 26th May 2014, Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister when the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, came to power after a crushing defeat of the Congress-led UPA. It has been a long journey for the son of a tea-seller who grew up poor.
The BJP won 282 seats out of the 543 in the Indian Parliament, an unequivocal majority. It is a decisive mandate for Modi and for change. The country’s young population, and there were 120 million first-time voters, have clearly rejected corruption and old-style feudal politics of the Congress with its ruling dynasty and courtiers. Instead, they want development, which was the central plank of Modi’s campaign. It is inspirational in a class-ridden feudal society like India that a low-caste boy with no social connections can become PM. If he can do it, others can do it too.
I was in Delhi throughout the electrifying elections and, wanting to understand what manner of man he is, I bought Andy Marino’s book ‘Narendra Modi, A Political Biography’ from Faqir Chand bookshop in Khan Market. I selected it from a long list of titles because the author is a British journalist who lives in London, hence less involved, and because it is very well written. Marino claims that his account is based on extensive research over a year, and that he spent hours interviewing Modi, “possibly the first time that he has granted such access to any journalist or author”.
It has been the longest political interview in history: Mr Modi has been vilified and closely scrutinised by the media, the judiciary and his political opponents for 12 years. Soon after he was parachuted in as Gujarat Chief Minister in October 2001, the notorious Godhra communal riots exploded in February 2002, leaving 1,000 dead, of whom 754 were Muslim and 274 were Hindu. These figures are taken from Marino’s book but other sources give different numbers. The author discusses the riots in detail and portrays Modi as a CM desperate to control the violence: “I informally asked my officers to alert the Army.” He also appealed to his neighbouring states for help. Marino adds, ‘The narratives of 2002 rarely take into account the fact that many Congress workers took part in the 2002 riots and goes on to name the Congressmen involved. Marino puts the onus of blame on Gujarat’s history of communal violence. “The fact was that he (Modi) had inherited a state thoroughly marinated in decades of bitter communalism – a bigotry that infiltrated the political, bureaucratic and police structure at every level”.
In this election, Indian voters have rejected the old policies of divide and rule. Marino writes: “The record of riots in India as a whole is appalling. Of the last six major communal riots in Gujarat before 2002, the Congress was in charge of the state for five. There have been 30,000 (riots) nationwide since Independence.” In the 1984 progrom against the Sikhs, the Congress is guilty not only of complicity in the murders but also of systematically suppressing the crimes. Thirty years later, ageing Sikh widows are still waiting for justice whilst the killers of their husbands go free. In the case of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Supreme Court found evidence to suggest that Modi did everything possible to bring the situation under control.
Modi says that he was “sad” about the 2002 Gujarat riots but has no guilt, and that no court has “come even close to establishing it”.
Meanwhile, the Indian Sensex soared in anticipation of a Modi victory. His election campaign slogan – “Minimum government, maximum governance” – resonated with the business community. Marino’s book points out that Modi reduced corruption in Gujarat and empowered the administration to deliver services to citizens.
The author also highlights Modi’s solitary nature and his monk-like calm. Ever a loner, he prefers to eat alone. At the same time, he is fiercely ambitious and Marino writes that young Narendra gave up eating salt, chillies and oil, as a tactic to get noticed. He became “engaged” at the age of three to a one-year old infant and would have co-habited with her when he turned 18 but left home before that. “As soon as Narendra fully understood the situation he decided, literally, to make his move”. He spent two years in ashrams until he was told by the head Swami that he was not cut out to be a monk. He had joined the RSS at the age of eight and remains true to the ideals of his mentor, Laxman Rao Inamdar.
When he left home at 17, Modi carried few clothes and a little money. He cut off the long sleeves of his kurtas to lighten his load, and to reduce the washing. What he did carry with him was a photograph of his mother, Hiraben, the only family member he keeps in touch with. “Almost the first thing he did (after becoming Gujarat CM in 2001) was to go and visit his aged mother. Her message to him was simple: Do not take any bribes.” His personal incorruptibility has contributed to his success. In a rare display of emotion, he broke down when talking about his other mater, Mother India.
Arundhati Roy has talked about the rape culture of India and Modi’s well touted commitment to women’s empowerment is heartening: let us hope he does implement it.
Marino has written a balanced book that portrays a driven man; solitary, shrewd, a consummate politician with the strength of character to endure 12 years of vilification and emerge the victor. It is factual and he includes statistics to back up his arguments. It is not a hagiography but is certainly a sympathetic portrait of the man who will now govern India.
Lady Mohini Kent Noon is an author, playwright, film-maker and charity worker. She is the founder and chair of the LILY Foundation Against Human Trafficking, which supports projects both in the UK and in India.
The above article was published in India Inc’s print edition of the India Investment Journal launched in June 2014 in conjunction with the India Inc Seminar: A new dawn for India – What does it mean for UK-India Business?