Shashi Tharoor: Narendra Modi is a leader wedded to gimmickry
With the general elections set for next year, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor dissects the haloed regime of PM Narendra Modi in a new book
How does a "fair-minded Opposition MP look back at the Modi years"? This is one of the imminent questions driving Congress MP and author Shashi Tharoor's new book, The Paradoxical Prime Minister (Aleph Book Company) that, at its core, critically analyses the last four years of PM Narendra Modi's rule, and the tragedy of the "achhe din" he once promised. Modi, Tharoor writes, "claimed to be strong in every area where the UPA was weak". "He projected himself as an able, effective and decisive chief executive, a true Indian nationalist, unbeholden to anyone else, who had risen from the grassroots, and one without the baggage of a poor governance record in national politics," says Tharoor. But, as the book unfolds, Tharoor through his brilliant scholarship, systematically breaks down Modi's policies to show why the BJP leader's claims are highly discordant with India's reality. In a no-holds-barred interview, the writer puts into perspective the story of a leader, whom he calls the Duryodhana, of our times.
This is a very nuanced account of a person, whom you do mention, you had some good things to say about at one point, and of whose politics, you were hopeful. Would you say that this book is a direct result of the disillusionment you feel, four years on?
Yes, I was initially prepared to give him — and those who had voted for him — the benefit of doubt, and I felt that if he lived up to his statements made during the election campaign and immediately after his victory, it could have benefited the nation. Unfortunately, the statements and promises turned out to be hollow and the book reflects my disenchantment with the gap between rhetoric and reality.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor
In the introduction, you did spend some time explaining how our "politics doesn't allow for mutual expressions of respect across the political divide" and how "praising politicians on the other side when they say or do the right thing, raise the bar for the standards by which we can judge their subsequent conduct". At what point during Narendra Modi's regime, did you feel that things had suddenly begun to go downhill, and that the elephant in the room, had to be immediately addressed?
Very early on. The brutal murder of Pune techie Mushtaq Ahmed just a few weeks into Mr Modi's tenure and his, and his government's, refusal to condemn it or even react to it, was the beginning of the downhill slide. It became apparent that Mr Modi was unwilling to confront the forces of bigotry and hatred on whose support he had built his career. Of course, with more mob-lynchings, the proliferation of gau rakshaks, ghar wapasi, love jihad and a dramatic rise in communal violence, the elephant in the room could no longer be ignored.
While you critically analyse Modi's politics, it's hard to ignore the fact that you have also trained your perceptive lens on his personal life — his relationship with his family or his wife for that matter. Would you think that the political and personal, especially in Modi's case, cannot be seen in isolation?
No, I devote minimal space to this, only as part of the profile essay, in which I try to understand the man and what makes him tick. Many will say that the neglect of his family is, in fact, a virtue because it means he has no one to be corrupt for.
There is also the Modi-fication of India that you write about and how slowly, he has attempted to turn the tides in his favour. How successful has he been?
I think he has made heavy inroads into our institutions and our way of democratic conduct, which seriously imperil the future of Indian democracy. But it takes time to transform a country as large and diverse as India, and if he can be stopped at the next elections we should still be able to protect our pluralist way of life. The longer he continues in power, the greater the danger that the extent of "modi-fication" will be profound and even irreversible.
In the book, you mention that "much of what the Modi government is all about has turned out to be little more than a series of empty gestures and marketing gimmicks". Is that the general perception?
Oh, very much so. Both metaphorically — the emotional speeches, the extravagant rhetoric, the profuse alliterations, the punchy slogans – and literally, as in his multiple holograms, this is a leader wedded to gimmickry.
You say that the demonetisation was a bad idea implemented badly. And, an entire chapter has been dedicated to it. There is a section of people, who still think it was the best decision taken during Modi's regime. What would you say to them?
Very simply, why? What benefits has it brought the country? How can anything be a good decision if it does not produce any good results?
Apart from demonetisation, what, in your report card, has been the worst policy decision that the BJP made?
I think extending the reach of Aadhaar and making it compulsory for all sorts of things that have nothing to do with receiving government benefits — linking it to your mobile phone or your bank account, for instance — was a bad policy decision, and a dangerous one for the security and privacy of Indian citizens. I am glad the Supreme Court applied the brakes before Big Brother completely took over our lives.
You are writing about a Prime Minister, who is still in power; a man, who you yourself admit, cannot stand criticism. Do you fear backlash?
Look, I have been facing unpleasantness for four years now, including a shameful police charge-sheet relating to the death of my late wife. No doubt they have even worse in mind, but I believe I have shown that whatever they fling at me, I will not be intimidated.
You do seem very hopeful about the 2019 elections. BJP clearly thinks otherwise. Who is living in a bubble here?
I think the BJP's bubble will pop once the votes are counted.
Were you to write The Great Indian Novel in today's socio-political climate, which character would Modi be cast as?
Duryodhana is the obvious answer! But that is almost too easy. I believe it is vital that we do not allow him to become a Duhshasana, disrobing the Draupadi of our democracy.
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