Me, myself and Modi

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: May 11 2014, 06:13am hrs
We have been seeing and hearing much more of Narendra Modi these days, as he pops up on successive television channels, allowing the media greater access than he has so far in his political career, especially after 2002. Whether being grilled (or lightly toasted) in a television studio or his official residence, the viewer sees a dramatically different side of the man, not the chest-thumping oratory of the campaign trail, but how he answers the kind of questions put to an individual who is poised to be the next Prime Minister of India, if the polls have got it right. His answers may be politically correct, but what is truly compelling is the references to himself in the third person. In many interviews and public speeches, his responses or statements are peppered with Modi will and Modi has said or Modi wants... It sounds quite discordantIndian politicians generally avoid such references because it is so closely associated with the royal we as in We are not amused.

Rahul Gandhi uses it occasionally and so does Lalu Prasad Yadav, but with Modi it almost seems like second nature. The question is whether it reveals something about the man beyond his Gujarat models and sketchy personal history. In psychological terms, the act of referring to oneself in the third person is called illeism, from the Latin ille meaning he. In psychology, the person using such a linguistic device or style is either seen as being egoistic and indulging in involuntary self-promotion, or, conversely, an attempt to project humility. Royals and social-status-seekers often use it to separate themselves from the hoi polloi, but, generally, it comes associated with inflated ego. The best-known examples would be Salvador Dali (Dali is immortal) and Agatha Christies poncy detective, Hercule Poirot. In politics, Charles de Gaulle was known to use illeism fairly frequently, but the most contemporary example would be former American presidential hopeful, Bob Dole, who used it so often that he became a figure of ridicule.

Modi is not in any danger of meeting that fate, but it has raised intriguing questions about his character and why he likes to refer to himself in such an unusual fashion. In real-life usage, illeism can reflect a number of different stylistic intentions, one being to project an air of objective impartiality, which includes justification of actions. If found guilty, Modi should be hanged in a public square, he says, and the usage of illieism gives it greater force and gravitas, as well as objectivity. Referring to yourself as if the person speaking is someone else makes it sound less biased. If that is his intention, it is a clever ploy, but most psychologists who have studied illeism see it in the context of ego. Social scientists at Florida State University found that people who referred to themselves in the third person were essentially narcissistic, and their deep desire to be at the centre of things is served by extreme self-confidence, a combination that makes narcissists attractive and even charming. People like this, another related study found, were buoyed by a coterie of admiring friends and associates and protected by the armour of positive self-regard. The study refers to such people feeling entitled to special treatmentbecause of which they are easily offended (Modi showed flashes of this in earlier interviews, once, famously, stalking out of a studio).

What the study concluded is that people who talk of themselves in the third person are actually pumped full of confidence and, if they have charisma, they excel in ego-intensive, cut-throat professions. It doesnt get any more cut-throat than politics. Indeed, psychologists are united in confirming that it is definitely not a handicap, but it could be a clue to a hidden persona that is struggling to emerge. In Modis case, that would certainly seem the case. According to Medical Daily, such people were more likely to be attention-seekers, striving to be heard amid the din and so full of self-confidence that the urge to stand taller than any potential rival or rivals becomes an obsession. The repeated use of Modi has said or Modi believes is indicative of a personality with narcissistic tendencies, but also one who is looking at himself from a distance and playing to the gallery.

The best examples of illieism is in parents with small children, where they talk about Mummy loves... or Papa will take you out. Bollywood scriptwriters also use it to define villains, with Mogambo khush hua in Mr India being the classic. We are now at the mercy of political scriptwriters and the climax is fast approaching. For much of his career, even as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi has been an intensely private person, only accessible to a few trusted people and the businessmen investing in his state. He retained that aura of mystery by shunning the media and making rare public appearances, but now, as the prime ministerial candidate, the mask is off, we see him everywhere and every day. Modi modified, so to speak. Modest he is not, confident, even boastful, yes, the classic illeist. Whether it reflects narcissism or self-confidence and self-belief, we will only know after May 16.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express