The hall was packed. The man in question was not even present, and the book, Narendra Modi: The Man. The Times, the launch of which brought the two factions – the baiters and the lovers – together for a discussion, is not his authorised biography. Yet, India International Centre (IIC), we were told more than once, was never this full.
Clearly, Narendra Modi is a phenomenon. And clearly, a discussion as provocative as Is India ready for Modi?, is destined to turn into a slanging match. When it comes to Modi, mid-way simply doesn’t exist.
Given that, it is not really surprising that Nilanjan Mukopadhyay’s attempt to stay neutral in Narendra Modi: The Man. The Times falls flat. Mukhopadhyay belongs to the section of the society that believes what happened in Gujarat in 2002 could not be eclipsed by the development mantra that Narendra Modi recites now. But Mukhopadhyay tries to leave his prejudices behind. He spells out his methodology right from the start: he wants to give Modi ‘benefit of doubt’.
This perhaps is Mukhopadhyay’s undoing. The book’s strength – his access to Modi, despite his anti-Modi stance – becomes its weakness: Mukhopadhyay holds back his questions, not wanting to offend the man, not wanting to force the door shut too soon.
Mukhopadhyay admits early on that he chose a path different from that of Karan Thapar, whose offensive line of questioning had Modi walk out in a huff. Unfortunately, his path leads him nowhere either. Right after the first meeting with Modi, Mukhopadhyay implies that he was shaken by the experience. And that perhaps, Modi, after all, doesn’t deserve such a balanced approach. Yet, he sticks to the plan, meets the man many times over and attempts to coax him into sharing his viewpoints. But, there is nothing that Modi says that reassures his critics. To Modi the book is merely a platform to try out his election manifesto. And he is very sure about his target audience. If it takes hardcore, almost militant, Hindutva ideals to ‘move forward’, he is not going to be apologetic about it. To hell with secularism. When Mukhopadhyay asks him about ‘the need for non-Hindus to accept Hindu ideas and ideals as their own’, pat comes a typical Modi reply, tinged with jingoism, confident of his ‘supporters’ expectations from him. ‘Yes that was the basic argument (in the course of the Ayodhya agitation that Muslims also must accept Lord Ram as the symbol of national identity), the main philosophy – that he also was a Mahapurush (Great Man) of this country. And that everyone in this country should believe in this – those who led this agitation campaigned for this.’
Mukhopadhyay, aware of Modi’s control over Gujarat, skips pursuing some leads, again because he’s mindful of his ‘access’ to Modi. True, these leads may not have taken Mukhopadhyay any place special: the man exudes power and not many will risk a chance against his ‘Godfather’ tactics. But Mukhopadhyay gives up even before trying. He diligently stays away from people under Modi watch in order not to ruffle his feathers. Instead, he draws heavily from what was written about Modi, elaborating on what is by now public knowledge. So there is nothing that Mukhopadhyay says that has not been said before.
But when it comes to interpreting Modi’s silences, Mukhopadyay’s voice takes a definite edge. Here he emerges from Modi’s shadow and argues persuasively. He traverses back and forth in time, linking events and giving shape to the man and his ambitions. He puts Gujarat in perspective. He doesn’t dwell much on 2002 riots, but chips through the development claims, revealing how precariously it is balanced. He plays the same game as Modi and gives us statistics to prove his points. Above all, he uses irony to subtly highlight the huge divide between what is being said and what actually happens. In more than one instance, he quotes Modi saying, ‘… anyone can come, everyone is welcome, I am ready anytime, everytime’. Yet, whenever Mukhopadyay is in conversation with Modi, the readers get the real picture: one wrong question, the welcome mat will be pulled from right under.
Modi, claims Mukhopadhyay, is not an enigma. And he is right, Modi’s intentions and his ambitions are clear. He is obviously looking to fry bigger fish. That brings us to the question, Is India ready for Modi? Back at IIC, Senior journalist Swapan Dasgupta, one of the acknowledged Modi supporters, held that there is no point in holding on to the past and that Modi is about future. Mukhopadhyay tackles this in his book, aptly under William Faulkner’s quote ‘The past is never dead; it’s not even past.’ Modi, argues Mukhopadhyay, chiselled his political identity post-Godhra. ‘If the Godhra incident had not occurred and if that had not been followed by the orgy of violence, Narendra Modi would not have been what he subsequently became…,’ holds Mukhopadhyay. To John Dayal, journalist, civil rights activists, who was ‘baiting’ Modi at IIC, to ignore the past means ignoring the blatant attempts by Modi to exclude minorities from development. Where does that leave secularism? And how could India be ever ready for the man who hacks at the basic structure of our constitution?