Sunday, 5 July 2015

Book review: The Modi Effect

The Modi Effect
Inside Narendra Modi's Campaign to Transform India
Lance Price
Hodder & Stoughton 2015

There is something alluring about a western person's take on Indian affairs.  Akin to Attenborough's interpretation of Gandhiji's life-story, Lance Price's account of Narendra Modi's successful prime ministerial election campaign is matter-of-fact and at the same time, engaging.

This allurement of a western opinion can sometimes wane, especially if he or she resorts to broad generalisations and stereotyped misinterpretations of the Indian way of life, but this is one accusation that cannot be pinned on Price.  He is, no doubt, helped in achieving this by a number of Indian aides, whose help he acknowledges towards the end of the book.  This in itself is commendable, since many of his predecessors are guilty of not bothering to correct their preconceived notions, and have instead, patronisingly depicted their version of how life in India is.

Thankfully there is nothing patronising about this work, and as Price states himself, even though he does not agree with Modi on many fronts, he finds himself attracted to Modi's vision of development, his love for the democratic system of government, and the practice of elections that this system entails.  

If Price was actually selected by Team Modi to document the success of the campaign, then one must congratulate them on the official choice of the author.  Especially so, because one would have been tempted to hand it to an Indian political commentator.  Perhaps the fact that finding one who would be entirely sympathetic to their cause, and not rake up the same old Godhra issue was difficult to achieve had they selected someone from India.  In selecting an outsider - a person with a neutral viewpoint - they have ensured that at the very least, there is a balanced assessment of the issues at hand.

It is the love of democracy and the election process, coupled with the political experience that Price pre-possesses, thanks to his years as a spin-doctor with Tony Blair, that shines through in this work.  Not that this is the first or the only work published on the stunning success of Modi's political campaign, but this, I confess, is the only one that I have read thus far.  

Price consults many previous works, news sources and websites, and personally interviews the stakeholders, apart from the man himself, to write a well rounded account of the 2014 general elections.  In particular, he excels in bringing to light what actually happened behind the scenes, the kind of planning that was involved in making use of technology and social media to spread the message, and the hard work done by the 'foot soldiers' - the party workers who made sure that a large portion of the otherwise apathetic electorate was somehow cajoled into coming out and voting on the election day.

He also rightly highlights the fact that Modi was the star campaigner for his party, he was probably the sole factor why BJP won the elections with a thumping majority; something that has never been achieved by a non-Congress party before.

Be it the bombardment of Modi images on electronic and print media, the clever use of technology in the form of 3D hologram images of Modi beamed to the remote areas of the country, the superb oratorial skills of Modi himself, and the sheer ability to turn brickbats into bouquets helped project the best image of Modi to the people, as Price recounts.

If you look back at the campaign, you will be reminded of the innumerable catch phrases and slogans that Modi regaled us with during his speeches.  Some of them are hard to forget:

  • the entire chaiwala story (which, Price points out, was inadvertently provided by Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Congressman who, along with his illustrious colleague, Digvijay Singh is particularly prone to 'foot-in-mouth-itis'); 
  • the comment about ek maa apne bete ka balidaan kaise de sakti hai? (which was actually played out in real life, when after the resounding defeat, both mother and son appeared in front of the media to accept defeat,  and Sonia Gandhi attempted to protect Rahul Gandhi by asking him not to respond to the reporters' questions); 
  • and of course, the quote about the recovery of economy by Manmohan Singh - achche din aanewale hain - which Team Modi exploited to the hilt, and Modi even tweeted it after he won the elections. 
It would be naive to attribute Modi's success to just image building exercises, and proper use of technology.  The people, quite frankly, were fed up of the UPA government.  The damage was already done for the Congress much before the campaign actually began.  Manmohan Singh may have been an excellent finance minister who was instrumental in liberalising the economy, but as a prime minister, he reminded one of Dhritarashtra, the blind king who was powerless and witless as his stooges ran riot with scams after scams and brought about the ultimate destruction of the clan in the war - in this case, the elections.

I reckon the press conference that Singh addressed just before the elections - only the third in his entire tenure as prime minister, as Price points out - was an idea of the top brass to ensure that people do not have him in mind when they came out to vote.  Because by then, the high command had read the writing on the wall, and had realised that they could not afford to have Singh around again.  But at the same time, they did not want to commit the name of Rahul Gandhi for the top post.

During the press conference, Singh said that it was time for him to 'hand over the baton', and showed amazing alacrity when he sprang up to answer a question about whether Modi would make a good prime minister.  'I think it would be disastrous for the country', is what he had said, and one couldn't help wondering if this disaster was anything more than what had already occurred during his 10 year tenure.

The problem with the Congress is this: the emperor's new clothes phenomenon.  Everybody is aware that holding on to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is not a viable proposition anymore, and new avenues have to be explored if they are serious about their party's political prospects.  But all the old stalwarts and loyal party workers are stuck in the denial mode and seem to be suppressing voices of dissent which are suggesting that a democratic rather than a dynastic approach is necessary.  Either that, or they are so hopeless loyal to the dynasty that are just biding their time, waiting for the Modi government to slide down from the high pedestal that it currently occupies.  After all, there are no obituaries in politics, as the saying goes.

A lot of positive changes have been implemented in the last 13 months by the Modi government.  Some of the best initiatives have been the Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan, the insurance scheme for the poor, better communication by the use of social media, digital India, exploring investment opportunities in foreign countries, civil nuclear deal, and yes, even Mann ki Baat.

However, lot more still needs to be done.  These days, Modi's silence on certain incidents - such as divisive statements by some of his ministers, and the Lalit Modi affair - has been criticised by all.  I tend to agree; the last thing we need is for Modi to go into Manmohan mode.  At the very least, he could reassure the people that all issues are being looked into; or better still, he could institute an independent inquiry committee to look into the issues.

There are too many specific areas that need improvement to recount here.  But generally, if the Modi government could concentrate on three key areas, it would have achieved something which has never been achieved before by any other government: population control, poverty alleviation, and improvement in healthcare.

Coming back to the book, Price's account brings back fond memories of a campaign that the whole country followed so closely, primarily because it held the promise of a new beginning; of achche din, which no doubt, have begun, but need to be fully realised.

The book is highly recommended to those who are interested in politics, elections, democracy, and of course, Narendra Modi.

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