Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, is one of India’s most polarising and divisive figures. There appears to be no middle ground between his zealous supporters and his equally dismissive detractors. To attempt to provide a fair portrait of such a person is a very challenging task and it is one which Kingshuk Nag has risen to with considerable aplomb.
He has used his own first-hand experience of Modi as a chief minister — Nag was Resident Editor of the Gujarat edition of The Times of India from 2000 to 2005 — as well as extensive research and interviews to present a fascinating picture of an ambitious, hard-working, obstinate and self-obsessed man.
You learn just how a humble canteen manager at a state bus transport depot transformed himself into a Chief Minister of a state and earned himself both international praise and infamy. You see how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) played such a prominent role in the teenager’s life. You see his dedication to detail and his quick grasp of systems.
But as the story unfolds, you also discover the heightened sense of self in the man who was crafting an image of himself. People found him brash and abrasive and some could not deal with his autocratic ways. His rise within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has these detours where Modi’s own personality seemed to work against him. There was also a contrast to some with his early demeanour in public — somewhat shy and quiet (as this reviewer also experienced a solitary meeting with him) — to the roaring “lion of Gujarat” he has now become.
The Namo Story: A Political Life is in a sense a story of contrasts. There is Modi the great leader of the Hindus, Modi the great master orator, Modi the king of economic reform and friend of the business community, Modi the diehard party and Sangh Parivar man. But there is also Modi the vain, Modi the man who sat back and watched a state burn and people die, Modi who mastered the art of exaggeration to puff up his state’s investment figures, Modi who is so unpleasant that many of his close associates often turn against him, Modi who many in the Sangh Parivar’s other outfits now abhor.
The over-riding image that appears finally is of a man who has cut through bureaucracy and red tape to help the business community and investors in his state. But he has also greatly exaggerated and at times even lied about the extent of the investment. He allows no questions about his failures or about the things he has not done — social and human development for instance. His discomfort with religious minorities is evident. He has learnt to make himself smoother and more sophisticated for public consumption outside Gujarat but his arrogance almost always shines through. He has mastered the digital world and social media but cannot always be both urbane and urban in his discourse. He is a voracious consumer of information but no one knows how far he has been educated and whether he actually got the degrees he claims he has. The book reveals that some of Modi’s life is all smoke and mirrors and a carefully constructed PR exercise — which has been very successful in some quarters.
A seminal chapter in the book is the one which deals with the riots of 2002. The author has used his own experience as an observer and a newspaper editor to recreate those days which will forever define Modi, even as he aims for the throne in Delhi. His early months as chief minister got Modi many fans — as citizens who were part of the Hindutva thinking welcomed the suffering of Muslims targeted in the riots — and cemented his position as a strong leader of Gujarat. But those same riots made Modi something of a monster in the rest of India and in some parts of the world.
Nag deals with Modi with as neutral a touch as possible, allowing the reader to draw his or her conclusions. The writing is friendly and accessible, with personal anecdotes and insights to give it an easy pace. For anyone who wants to know about the man who would be king, this is a definitive must-read book.
(Disclaimer: The reviewer was Deputy Resident Editor, Times Of India, Ahmedabad, reporting to the author of this book from 2001to 2004)
The NaMo Story: A Political Life
By Kingshuk Nag
Published by Lotus Roli