Portrait of a man and an election

BY AJAZ ASHRAF| IN Books | 11/11/2014
Rajdeep Sardesai's book mixes insight and anecdote to offer an analysis of the making and remaking of Narendra Modi.
But should the author have debated whether or not Modi was complicit in the riots in a mere seven paragraphs, asks AJAZ ASHRAF
2014: The Election that Changed India by Rajdeep Sardesai, pages 372, Viking/Penguin, Rs 599. 
A hundred pages into Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2014: The Election that Changed India, you are likely to be reminded of the films Vishal Bhardwaj has directed following his impressive debut, Maqbool. Each of those films was engagingly crafted, yet each was just a little disappointing than the previous venture, until this trend was reversed through the recently released Haider, which was hailed as much as it was panned.

This is also, more or less, your experience while reading The Election that Changed India. It opens with the scintillating, and controversial, opening chapter, Narendrabhai, the Man from Gujarat, flags a wee bit in the next one on Rahul Gandhi, and begins to lose steam as it narrates the predictable. Yet you keep turning the pages because of the many minor ‘Haider moments’ in the book – the delectable anecdotes, both hilarious and insightful, which provide a glimpse into the dark and egoistical personalities of politicians. There are also snatches of conversations between Sardesai and Narendra Modi, often pithy one-liners which invite you to tease out their underlying psychology.

You savour the pleasure of meeting men (no women) who quit their lucrative jobs to spearhead the BJP’s social media outreach in the months before the 2014 general elections. They mounted an incredible campaign and won the cyber war for Modi. But what intrigues you is whether or not they were dismayed at the heat and hatred their endeavour generated. 

Nevertheless, it is no mean achievement to keep the reader hooked, particularly as Sardesai has chosen to tell his story of the 2014 elections through a piecing together of actions and events still fresh in our memory, besides having been analysed threadbare on the ‘Talking Box’, of which he is among the most credible and pugnacious voices.

This book is about the making and remaking of Modi, a process which doesn’t seem to have ended even now; it is also about Rahul Gandhi and the Congress wallowing in their desperation and commonplace passion; it is about the complex manner in which elections in India are won and lost. 
This is why the word ‘Changed’ in the title appears both superfluous and a marketing gimmick. Sardesai neither explains the ways he thinks India has changed nor explains what precisely the word means to him, unless we accept the very narrow definition of it – that the 2014 elections saw for the first time a non-Congress party win a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha.

For the Liberal-Left, the title would suggest a shattering of their ideals and marginalization of their values; for the Right a realisation of their dreams nurtured over the decades; and for the Hindu Right a signal to flex their muscles with impunity. 

But change to qualify as change needs to endure longer than a cycle of an election. Even Sardesai seems to accept this definition, spelling it out in the last paragraph of his book, “…Verdict 2014 has placed India at the cusp of change, with the future direction pregnant with a range of possibilities, good and bad. If a Congress under Nehru ushered in India’s republican Constitution, a BJP led by Modi could well redefine the idea of India, or at least the way it is governed.”

Whether governance has changed substantively is debatable. But governance does seem to have become an entertainment, an interminable soap, enacted, one suspects, to score brownie points. The Modi government was hailed for the lean Council of Ministers it constituted at the time it was sworn-in; it has, in just five months, acquired a flab of another 21 new members. Sardesai, therefore, may find it disappointing to discover that India seems to change those who dream of changing it.

But changed Modi has, many times over, as Sardesai illustrates vividly through the book’s 372 pages but most eloquently in the opening chapter. He tracks Modi when he was an anonymous face in 1990. At that time, the author was a print media reporter assigned to cover L.K. Advani’s rath yatra roll from Gujarat into Maharashtra. And Modi was overseeing this segment of Advani’s journey.

Three aspects of Modi caught the eye of Sardesai the reporter: his micromanagement skills, his narcissism, and his intimidating eyes, “stern, cold and distant.” In subsequent years, after Modi was banished from Gujarat to Delhi, he took to courting TV journalists in the capital, unmindful of even being a last-minute substitute in the studio and once patiently waiting in a downpour for all of two hours to go on air. Obviously, Hindutva rhetoric informed his TV interventions. 

Modi’s romance with TV and the media as such soured at the outbreak of rioting in 2002, five months after he was catapulted to the post of Gujarat Chief Minister. He became the Hindu Hriday Samrat and later took on the persona of Mr Development, ultimately stampeding his way to the Centre. In this makeover Sardesai discerns in Modi a certain anxiety to “rewrite his record, reinvent his personality.”

But the attempt at reinvention isn’t unique to Modi, as Sardesai seems to suggest. In fact, it is a compulsion of all Hindutva politicians nursing ambitions to become Prime Minister. For instance, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speeches in Assam in the 1980s bristled with hatred and Advani’s rath yatra cut a wide swathe of communal animosity countrywide. 

Both reinvented themselves, one successfully, the other disastrously. The logic of Hindutva politics demands a two-step makeover. BJP leaders have to first endear themselves to the hardcore Hindutva support base through the politics of extremism. But to leap out from this narrow universe of the party to the national stage demands eclecticism, an appeal beyond what mesmerizes party followers. It is this that inspired Modi to cultivate a new persona, as it did Vajpayee and Advani before him.

Insights into Modi’s personality in the book are tellingly brought about through the snatches of conversations Sardesai had with him. So when Sardesai calls Modi to ask whether he delivered his speech in Hindi following the BJP’s victory in the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections to make a “pitch for prime minister”, the answer the author receives is, “If a reporter like you can become an editor, why can’t a chief minister become a prime minister?” Smart repartee, yes, but it also perhaps displays Modi’s awareness of, and anxiety with, how the capital’s influential journalists viewed him.

Modi was the first to pay his condolences on the death of Sardesai’s father. Yet soon after journalist Sagarika Ghose tweets saying Modi should have acknowledged his wife Jasodhaben much before the 2014 elections, Modi tells Sardesai, “You and your wife are on Twitter a lot.” Big Boss is watching and monitoring, you can’t but suspect. Then again, on receiving a threatening telephonic call from a Hindutva hothead, Sardesai complains to Modi, only to hear him say, “It is wrong, but how do I stop everyone who speaks?”

Modi always seems to have taken or returned Sardesai’s call during the election campaign. The only time he didn’t was on May 16, the day the 2014 election results veritably crowned him as PM-in-waiting. Sardesai’s first attempt had the operator inform him that Modi was in a meeting. On the second attempt Sardesai was told, “Sahib has gone to sleep.” The author doesn’t tell you whether or not he thinks it was a rebuff, leaving the interpretation of Modi the man to you.

Against this backdrop of exercising restraint against editorializing, it is bewildering why Sardesai should have attempted to analyse Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots of 2002, in the process making a slew of contradictory assertions. He says the Gujarat riots suggest, as do all riots, that the government was either “incompetent or complicit, or both.” It was incompetent, no doubt, argues Sardesai, because Modi’s grip over the administration till then had been weak. It was the VHP general secretary Praveen Togadia who was the “real boss” of Gujarat, its “ringmaster”.

Modi, subsequently, did rein in Togadia, “but in the bloody days of 2002, he failed to do so,” Sardesai says. Was this deliberate? Sardesai answers, “Modi will perhaps never answer the question, but it is very likely that barely five months into his tenure, he decided that it was wise political strategy, or perhaps rank opportunism, not to take on someone who reflected the blood-curdling desire for revenge on the street.”

In the wake of grisly rioting, not to control it whether as “strategy” or “opportunism” conveys a deliberate intent to let the communal conflagration rage. It suggests a willing inaction. It means, even by Sardesai’s yardstick, complicity, in whatever shades of grey it may be dressed. What precisely was Modi’s role is too complicated to be addressed in the seven paragraphs Sardesai devotes to tackling the issue.

Yet it would be grossly unfair to Sardesai to construe his verdict on Modi as a peace overture to the most powerful man in the country, to bring a closure to their troubled relationship, as many have suggested. This book does portray in many instances the discomfiting aspects of Modi, and doesn’t provide a gloss to his persona, unless you are among those who detest him to the point where you won’t even accept him as a communicator par excellence, astonishingly energetic, technologically savvy enough for his 64 years to fathom the potential of social media, and more grounded and rooted than Rahul Gandhi – all points, one way or another, Sardesai makes.

Those who think Gandhi is grounded will be disabused of the notion on reading The Election. He comes across as a bumbling politician, a man who would rather be elsewhere than on a campaign trail, a divided personality, a description Sardesai invokes in his estimate of BJP president Amit Shah too. 

Sardesai writes, “In the day he (Rahul) would engage with thinkers and activists, but at night he seemed to draw comfort from being in the company of family friends from the glamorous Page Three set. Perhaps the India-Bharat divide was most in eviden in his own personality, a split he was perpetually trying to reconcile…”

The near-Haider moment of chapter length is Multimedia Is the Message. It discloses how Times Now’s Arnab Goswami stole from NDTV the interview of Rahul Gandhi, in which he infamously hemmed and hawed his way down the popularity chart, and what prompted Modi to appear in TV anchor Rajat Sharma’s Aap Ki Adalat. Sardesai was denied this privilege by Modi who, though, did once respond to his request for an interview thus: “Arre, I have no enmity with you.” You are tempted to parse the sentence for its implications.

This chapter will leave a tad disappointed those who might have been hoping for an extensive, and sensational, detailing of his complicated relationship with Mukesh Ambani, who took over the CNN-IBN channel. But elsewhere, Sardesai does disclose the problems he encountered in hosting Arvind Kejriwal for the Google Plus Hangout programme, including having to edit out allegations levelled against the tycoon before it was beamed. Obviously, it is for Sardesai to decide on the extent of disclosure, particularly in a book which isn’t his autobiography.

Among the many images the book evokes, arguably the most haunting, and enduring, is of an angry Hindutva mob, not far away from the Gujarat Chief Minister’s residence, asking Sardesai and colleagues during the 2002 riots to take off their trousers to prove their religious identity. 

Sardesai’s parents had him circumcised at birth. His bluster and courage, born out of the instinct to survive, saw him and his team, which had a Muslim driver, escape the murderous Hindu militants. You can only hope this chilling image doesn’t become an emblem for the “Changed India”.

This book, at many places, also makes you smile at the portrayal of the antics of politicians. So, to end the review, here is doing a Sardesai on Sardesai. It is funny he should have written ‘St Stephen’s College’ as ‘St Stephens College’, seemingly indifferent about the spelling of the institute his wife attended! Ah, did you say, some things about Indian husbands never change? 
(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His book, The Hour Before Dawn, will be published by Harper Collins in December. He can be contacted on: ashrafajaz3@gmail.com.)

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