Missing the man: a political biography of Narendra Modi

Despite having spent hours in his company, Andy Marino does not quite manage to capture the essence of Narendra Modi.
Hindustan Times | By Ranjona Banerji, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAY 10, 2014 01:10 PM IST

Despite having spent hours in his company, Andy Marino does not quite manage to capture the essence of Narendra Modi in his biography of the BJP prime ministerial candidate. A review of the book by Ranjona Banerji.

For those who have not read the Bal Narendra comic about the great exploits of India’s prime ministerial hopeful, Narendra Modi, this biography might come close enough. You learn about his ability to grapple with crocodiles, excel in athletics and practice rigorous asceticism. Author Andy Marino is clear that this was no ordinary child who was just going to become a “bank clerk” or a “store manager”.

However, having told us about Modi’s physique and ferocious reading habits, Modi’s latest biographer makes a sudden segue. What, he asks, would have happened if Modi was not born in Gujarat but in Bengal? Then we wander to Bengal for a few pages. Bengal is very different from Gujarat we are told. But with Modi’s “feeling of indifference, his solitariness and his interest in reading” would he have fitted in better in Bengal, Marino asks. Then he goes on to say, “There is a danger in over-interpreting these imponderables.” Here, one would have to agree. The only fathomable reason for this cross country flight of fancy seems to be to fill up some pages.
Soon, we are told that Modi was deeply influenced by Swami Vivekananda, founder of the Ramakrishna Mission. Marino may have missed the fact that Vivekananda was a Bengali from, er, Bengal, when he asks during this mystery quest into Bengal, “Could he (Modi) have fallen for Tagore instead of Vivekananda...” Why, dear sir, Modi could have fallen for Vivekananda in Bengal as well, right there in the heart of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s home.

And so we go on. There are pages and pages of a potted Indian history largely. Perhaps from Modi’s point of view, although not ascribed to him. Or maybe, this carefully told history is to ensure that neither Modi nor his RSS origins nor the Bharatiya Janata Party are shown in a bad light. So the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is a sweet, cuddly sort of organisation, albeit a trifle eccentric, but generally benign and munificent. The Congress is the devil incarnate, responsible for everything that has gone wrong in India ever, with no let-up at all.

Where, however, is the main character? We are treated now and then to little anecdotes about something Modi has achieved — in his own words. And we are told that we should not look at these anecdotes as “self-praise” or arrogance, but rather as self-confidence. Fine. But these anecdotes are too few and far between. Instead, we get some of the history of Gujarat.

We reach the riots — disclosure: this reviewer worked for a newspaper in Gujarat from 2001 to 2004 — and there is natural curiosity at what is to be revealed. Do you know what was the worst thing about the 2002 riots? Easy: All the negative publicity which poor Modi has been fighting for 12 years in spite of being the best ever at handling riots. Evil media! A quick check of the reference material for the riots reveals that the main sources of information are Madhu Kishwar, Swapan Dasgupta, Tavleen Singh and MV Kamath and Kalindi Randeri’s biography of Modi — all supporters and admirers of the RSS/BJP/Modi. Not the Hindustan Times, not The Times of India, not Indian Express, not The Hindu, not the Asian Age, all of which reported from Gujarat on what was happening... And, of course, one must not forget the biggest threat to India which is from Islamic militancy. Shh, not a word about any other threats, within or without.

We move on to other criticisms of Gujarat amongst its many successes. We learn that although Gujarat has failed on some human development indices, come on, so has the rest of India! But look how it has done so well as far as business is concerned: absolute tops in some of those indices!

At the end of it all though, Modi, the man, remains an “imponderable”. I wish that Modi had been “over-interpreted”, or even interpreted at all. All those hours of interviewing, all those days spent with Modi and the essence of the man is elusive. Instead, there are a number of excuses and over-rationalisations. Not to mention inadequate and clearly lopsided research. Even assuming that the Indian media in general is an evil anti-Modi enterprise, since the author is a British author and TV producer and perhaps not very familiar with Indian circumstances without putting too fine a point on in it, would it not have helped to check just why and how the devil knows his scriptures?

If you want to read this book to find out more about Narendra Modi, the man who is being projected as the next prime minister of India, you will be disappointed. But, if you want to know more about the RSS view of India and Indian history, conveyed without any irony and the massive claims by one administration portrayed without question, then this is the book for you. And if you have another view of life altogether, this book is a guaranteed laugh-a-minute.

(Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist who writes on politics, the media and social issues.)

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