Riding the Modi wave - again

MAKING SENSE OF MODI’S INDIA

HarperCollins

208pages; Rs 499

MODI AND THE WORLD: EDITED ESSAYS

Bloomsbury

317 pages; Rs 499

A seven-page foreword (in Modi and the World) written by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in an anthology of essays on the foreign policy initiatives of the Narendra Modi government can be off-putting. This self-laudatory exercise is unappealing because the subject matter of the book is not part of the official brief of the minister holding dual charges. By letting Mr Jaitley peg the book favourably, the publishers (and editors) have chosen to ride the wave of hagiographic material on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government that still is a popular draw in the books market.

The other book under review (Making Sense of Modi's India) is not pitched solely as a compendium of positive appraisals. The two books demonstrate that the stream of literature on Mr Modi continues to flow not like a tiny rivulet but like the torrential Ganga. But just as the river that gives north India's alluvial plain its name requires cleansing, the literature that Mr Modi has spawned requires greater effort to remain relevant.

Because the Modi project is still in the making and revealing new contours, it is daunting to explore the path he has trodden since May 26, 2014. In the second book, which must be talked about first if only for being a more balanced attempt, the majority of writers either devote the entire space, or most of it, to analysing the reason for Mr Modi's ascendance. For instance, Meghnad Desai's essay is self-descriptive - "India as a Hindu Nation - and Other Ideas of India". Mr Modi and the changes that he has ushered in do not get the required attention. Most of the essay would have fit better in a collection of articles during the political assault Mr Modi was leading on Raisina Hill. Even on this front, this reviewer disagrees with Mr Desai's depiction of V Savarkar as secular. True that the 'S' word has been (mis)interpreted many times because of the problematic - for the Indian cultural Right - fact that this attribute is seen as an essential tag for survival in Indian politics. Yet to find secularism in Savarkar's framework is like finding traces of divinity in the Devil himself!

Historian Gyanendra Pandey also begins on a historical note and when he moves to assessing Mr Modi's stellar role at Madison Square Garden or the ignored elements of his slogan - sabka saath, sabka vikas - his insights do not transcend what editorial writers and communists have already written. Swati Kapila, too, begins with history and when she moves to analysing Mr Modi's handling of the party - will he destroy it like Indira Gandhi - or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); the basis of interpretation can be contested. Radhika Desai examines the possibility of the RSS/Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Mr Modi emerging as an out-and- out fascist organisation.

Faisal Devji provides insight in the essay titled "Discovery of India" and explores the three signature elements of Mr Modi - nationalism, party politics (its management) and governance. Beena Sarwar provides an engaging Pakistani viewpoint of Mr Modi though the parallels are occasionally far-fetched, such as the mention of the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi and Salman Taseer in the same breath. She correctly argues that communal forces on both sides mirror each other but when she makes a case for the processes of the courts in Pakistan being similar - and autonomous - as in India, the argument is not convincing. The contention that Indo-Pak ties worsened in Mr Modi's tenure is hazardous because this relationship is going to be a long-drawn Test match and a concluding assessment after a "session" or two would be foolhardy.

Journalist, economic commentator and Modi admirer, R Jagannathan explores if Mr Modi is a "Communal Czar" or an "Inclusive Icon". He is right when he says Mr Modi is neither the Ronald Reagan nor Margaret Thatcher that the corporate sector may have wished him to be, nor is he one who would go marauding one medieval mosque after another, which the cultural Right would appreciate. But can't he be a mix of both leaving both groups somewhat satisfied? Where Mr Modi may finally end up is also left as a big "if" posed by Sudheendra Kulkarni in his essay, which begins with a sweep of government initiatives till January 2016. Among the most recently written pieces, the writer, with his ringside view of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years and including when Mr Modi was an office bearer in Delhi, minces no words and notes his displeasure at the word "secularism".

Modi and the World is focussed on the foreign policy initiatives of the prime minister and is divided into various major sections - each devoted to geo-political regions: neighbourhood, east Asia and beyond, and the West including Europe, Canada and the United States. Harsh V Pant observes Mr Modi shift from non-alignment to strategic autonomy, and Kanti Bajpai focuses on five drivers of Indo-US ties: rising concern over China's rise, opposition to Islamic terrorism, peace and stability in (our) region, economic partnership and global commons. Most essays in this selection would have served their purpose better if writers looked at issues with a hawk's eye and not appear as being part of the charmed circle. Consequently, the book ends up as a ready reckoner for civil services aspirants.

The reviewer is author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (Tranquebar, 2013)

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