Book review: The Modi Effect; Man of steel

By: | Published: May 3, 2015 12:04 AM

The Modi Effect is a highly readable book detailing the story behind Narendra Modi’s 2014 Indian election victory.

The Modi Effect is a highly readable book detailing the story behind Narendra Modi’s 2014 Indian election victory, but leaves one wanting for deeper insights into the man’s thought process

The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s
campaign to transform IndiA
Lance Price
Rs 599
Pp 342

The cardinal rule governing writings on history and biography is that there should be sufficient distance between a writer and his subject. Otherwise, biases creep in. Any writings on, say, Mughal emperor Akbar would not be questioned with the same passion and intensity, as ones on former prime ministers Indira Gandhi or Manmohan Singh, as they belong to contemporary times, and both the writer and the reader would have their own strongly-held views about these leaders.

However, such rules may only apply for academia. For writers in general, the best time to write is while the subject is hot, as that’s what sells. There is relevance of such writings beyond the commercial angle, for if a tradition of history writing has to be inculcated, contemporary examination of subjects cannot be ruled out.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in the limelight ever since he took charge of Gujarat as its chief minister way back in 2001. This was followed by the Godhra train carnage in February 2002, leading to widespread communal riots in the state. It resulted in Modi’s criticism in the national and international media. His attempts at recrafting his image focused on economic development and growth, which not only made him win three subsequent elections in the state, but also gave him an image of a leader who is a doer.

Though it was clear to psephologists and political observers that Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would win the parliamentary elections in 2014, what was missed by most was that he would be able to garner the majority on his own without having to depend on any allies for support (this, though, deprived several the scope to write tomes on how Modi had to bend backwards to woo the allies to form a coalition government!). By the time Modi sprang into the limelight, there were several biographies and hagiographies in the market about him, bringing to light the man behind the mask. Therefore, it’s not that very little is known about him, but it’s the general thrill among readers bored with an overdose of literature on Mahatama Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi that leads them to lap up anything to do with Modi. In terms of content, the various books on Modi have very little to offer—most of them are me-too products with just the packaging being different. However, since Modi is supposed to be unfriendly with the media—particularly, English media—and rarely grants interviews—and if at all he grants one, micro-manages what would be written—any book on him arouses interest relating to its objectivity.

The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India by Lance Price largely shares information that is well-known even to those who are not great followers of current affairs. However, there’s one thing that makes the book interesting: Price tells, in great detail, the story of how the 2014 election campaign was planned and executed by talking not only to the people involved with it, but also Modi himself.

The chapters on planning related to the campaign—which liberally depended on new techniques like 3D masks, social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, and the chai pe charcha sessions—make for very interesting reading and provide an insight as to how fastidious Modi really is about the details: everything about the campaign—what worked, what didn’t and at what point a plan was abandoned—has been described in vivid detail by Price.

What’s interesting to note is that 64-year-old Modi has a better understanding and knack for technology and its use in electioneering than Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who is 20 years younger than him. The Modi Effect mentions one of the technology wizards who assisted Modi in the campaign, and who explains how he had first approached Gandhi with his technology-led proposals for campaigning, but was shunned. Gandhi had at the time said such techniques have no relevance for people in the villages of India. The success of Modi’s technology-led campaign proves how wrong Gandhi was.

However, the tech-savviness in Modi did not undermine his emphasis on the traditional modes of reaching out to people. In fact, it was the marriage of the modern with the traditional that worked for Modi.

The feeling one gets while reading The Modi Effect is that the man used all the arsenal available to him to campaign and win power through the ballot. However, such hype and hope get created only once in a lifetime or may recur after several decades. In that sense, Modi has peaked. To translate the hopes and expectations of the people into meaningful action is not only difficult, but fraught with risks. The problem begins when the electorate or supporters start seeing their leader as a demi-god. And Modi runs this risk, something that has been aptly brought out in the last chapter of the book. Will the Modi magic and method always work? The answer is not easy. There were a string of successes in assembly elections, like in Haryana and Maharashtra, but in the Delhi polls, the same methods failed miserably. The ‘Acche Din’ slogan may have brought Modi to power, but the real challenge would be to see that it doesn’t cause the end of his government the way ‘Shining India’ did for the NDA during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time.

Will Modi reinvent himself while being in the chair of the PM? Will one get to see a different campaign style in 2019? For answers to these questions, one has to wait, as no book can sufficiently answer these at this stage.

The Modi Effect is a highly readable book written in a racy and lucid style. Price, who has in the past worked with the election team of former British PM Tony Blair, among others, provides some great global comparisons. However, my only regret is that the author, who Modi gave interviews to for this book, has not been able to probe him enough to bring deeper insights into his views on issues afflicting the nation. Whatever quotes have been attributed to Modi are very general in nature and do not provide anything more to the reader than what’s already available in the public domain. Yet, the sheer absence of any ideological baggage on the part of the author, while treating the subject with whom he also shares some differences, should be a lesson for some Indian ideologues who fail to see Modi beyond the 2002 riots.

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