Narendra Modi: the Man, The Times
By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
Rs. 495 pp 407
The NaMo Story: A Political Life
By Kingshuk Nag
Rs. 295 pp 188
Few contemporary Indian politicians are as polarising as Narendra Modi. On social networking, at forums to discuss business and politics, even at informal gatherings, conversation often veers towards the man: the growth of industry in Gujarat and the superlative state of its roads - his fans invariably hold the latter up as indicative of Modi's dynamism, how his becoming prime minister will transform India propelling it finally, at long last, into the league of developed nations, and of course, for those who idiotically persist in harping on these minor things, the still-rankling memory of the gruesome Gujarat riots of 2002 that happened under Modi's watch. The vociferousness of the Modi fan club often has the effect of repelling liberals who are then immediately labelled 'sickular', a popular term among proponents of Hindutva on Twitter especially reserved for anyone who persists in cleaving to the odd idea that the ends do not justify the means, and believes the success of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation like India hinges on being inclusive in every sphere.
So it is with much trepidation that you pick up the two new biographies of Narendra Modi that land on your desk. The cover of Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay's Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, which features the chief minister of Gujarat and favourite of Ratan Tata and the Brothers Ambani dressed in a colourful Kutchi costume and triumphantly pumping his fist in the air, makes you wonder if this is going to be a hagiography. It's an accusation the author, a senior journalist, is wary of, and his introduction that frankly touches on his own motivations, doubts and methods, and the experience of interviewing his subject clarifies that the biography attempts to take the "middle path in the scrutiny of the leader".
The Namo Story: A Political Life by Kingshuk Nag, whose cover has Modi in a pagdi glaring out at the reader doesn't have to battle against such early impressions. Besides, the blurb mentions the author was the resident editor of the Times of India's Ahmedabad edition between May 2000 and July 2005, immediately establishing that he was in the thick of the newsgathering operation in 2002, had the opportunity to interact with Modi during that crucial period ("In private, Modi pleaded helplessness and said that he was trying to do his best. 'Aapko pata nahin Musalmanon ke liye merey dil mein kitna dard hai', he told me, thumping his chest. But these private statements did not tally with his public responses."), and consequently, also had to deal with the animosity of those - including the scabrous Pravin Togadia ('No servant will work at your house, no shopkeeper will sell their wares to your wife') - who believed he was 'unfairly portraying' the situation in Gujarat. Consequently, Nag's book which strictly avoids lapsing into the chatty tone that Mukhopadhyay occasionally favours appears more rigorous as it packs in details about everything from the horror of the riots, how FICCI was effectively played off against CCI and how the success of that manoeuvre has inspired Modi to play the same game with the UK and the US on one side and China with its endemic disregard for human rights on the other. How Modi will make this last move work for him now that the Chinese incursion has resuscitated national antipathy towards our giant neighbour will no doubt make it to a subsequent edition.
Mukhopadhyay's effort, however, is richer when it comes to an examination of the social milieu in which Modi grew up, the early marriage that most likely hastened his escape from Vadnagar, the world of the RSS that nurtured his talents and ideals, the integral behind-the-scenes role he played during the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement, the long history of bloody skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat, the murder of Haren Pandya, Modi's great talent at projecting himself and even on his enduring relationship with Jade Blue, the Ahmedabad outfitters, who now sell more than 10,000 Modi kurtas every year.
Having read both books back-to-back, you feel like you've looked at Modi through two different lenses. This might sound like a reviewer's cop-out but, quite unexpectedly, the books do complement each other as they give you a sharper, albeit not a more sympathetic, understanding of the man who could become prime minister, and is the most controversial figure in Indian politics today.