12 November 2015

Meet India’s Narendra Modi, a generous workaholic driven by egomania


India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has arrived in Britain for what will be the first state visit by India for over a decade. Pundits are debating the scale of this visit, whether the UK really matters to India and why British officials are brushing shadier elements of Modi’s history under the carpet for the expedients of trade. But what about Modi himself? Understanding the man who currently leads India gives a fascinating insight into the country itself.

This is what Lance Price, Director of Communications under Tony Blair and who coordinated his successful re-election campaign in 2001, explores in his book: The Modi Effect – Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India. Through interviews with Modi and his team of advisers, Price majestically recounts the brilliance of the BJP party’s campaign, and untangles the biographical inconsistencies of the man who has the potential to change the course of Indian history.

India is often seen as a country of contradictions – between ancient spiritualism and modern materialism; between Hindutva supremacy and religious plurality. Narendra Modi too is far from straightforward. Price presents us with a leader who embodies the uncertain qualities of his nation: who appears at once a selfless workaholic and a narcissistic obsessive; whose career has been built on the divisive foundations of Hindu monoculturalism but who sees himself as heralding a new era of national unity.

It is over a year since Narendra Modi swept to power in India, on the back of the hopes and aspirations of over 150 million voters across eight thousand towns and 40,000 villages. He ran with an ordinary agenda, promising to end corruption and develop the economy, yet it was one which created a grassroots revolution.

Born in 1950 in Vadnagar in the state of Gujarat into the Modh-Ghanchi caste of rural landowners – a group officially designated as one of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) which represent about 40% of the Indian population – Modi has always seem himself as a political outsider. Yet he had a clear sense of his destiny from a very young age, which he owes to his faith in the astrological branch of Hinduism, Maro Bhagya Vidhata, whose practitioners predicted for him a future as ‘a big political leader…destined to move around in big cars.’

Modi’s upbringing was characterised by boredom and curiosity. As a teenager, he joined the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a decision, Price argues, that shapes Modi’s formative years. The RSS was founded in 1925 to promote Hindutva nationalism and unite the country against British colonialism. It then helped set up the Bharitya Janarta Party (BJP), the party Modi now leads, in 1951 as its political arm. The self-denial, celibacy and teetotalism that the RSS instilled in Modi led him to eschew family life, including an arranged marriage, and he spent the early part of his adulthood as a vagabond traversing the width and breadth of India.

After years excelling in back office functions for the BJP, Modi found himself appointed as interim Chief Minister of Gujarat at an inauspicious time. Three months into the job, in February 2002, he had to deal with the fallout of the Godhra riots, inter-racial conflict between Hindus and Muslims relating to the holy city of Ayodhya, the birth-place of Ram – a Hindu God – but also the current location of the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque.

While proving his innocence from any complicity in the violence, he was nonetheless denounced at the time as a ‘merchant of death’ by the President of the governing Congress Party Sonia Gandhi and vilified by the Western media for a number of years after. The United States lifted his travel ban, imposed under the Bush Administration for inciting religious hatred, only as late as 2012.

The nuance of Modi’s complicated relationship with India’s Muslim population is delicately constructed. One of slogans that BJP adopted for the campaign was Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, meaning “Together with All, Development for All”. Modi leaned on his record after 2004 as Chief Minister in Gujarat, where he could show a strong hand on growth and infrastructure, and pledged to raise the prosperity of Muslims nationwide to those living in Gujarat. The offer to Muslims was purely economic; anything else would alienate the majority Hindu vote, his advisers would recount.

But when it came to the nitty-gritty of campaigning, however, a darker side to the BJP starts to emerge. Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man who was instrumental in winning 73 seats in the bell-weather state of Uttar Pradesh, got into trouble when he suggested that Azamgarh, which has a high Muslim population, was a ‘base for terrorists’. Modi is also on the record for referring to Rahul Gandhi, who was running as the Congress Party candidate, as shehzada, an inflammatory use of a Muslim name that also means ‘spoilt brat’ in Hindi. This was part of an effective smear campaign that powerfully juxtaposed an entitled Gandhi against a Modi who had a past as a chai wala from a backward caste. ‘Why would one want to target caste politics,’ he would ask somewhat idealistically in his interview with Price after the election.

Who is the real Modi? That’s the question – even if not posed deliberately – that one is forced to confront throughout the reading, and we’re offered a mixture of style and substance. There is no doubt, despite the low skulduggery of electioneering, that Modi is a man of integrity who works tirelessly in accordance with the virtues of self-sacrifice and public service he adopted at the RSS.  When Indira Gandhi called off democracy in the Emergency of 1975, he became an activist, disgusted with the ‘manner in which personal freedom had been trampled upon,’ and risked arrest.

Yet there is a clear streak of vanity that has run through his life and manifests during the election campaign. On the one hand, digital media was at the heart of Modi’s plan to win a majority in the Lok Sabha, using multiple channels not just to build a huge following and lead the news agenda but also to get feedback on local issues and tweak tactics. Modi’s partnership with Rajesh Jain, an internet entrepreneur and founder of Niti Central, was instrumental in creating Modi’s India’s 272+ platform, building over 1 million digital activists on NaMoNumber.com, and producing viral campaigns on Facebook which tapped into a fan base of over 14m followers.

However in 2007, when campaigning for state election in Gujarat, Modi asked his PR manager, Manish Bardia, to produce a 3D replica of his face, having been inspired by cardboard cut-outs used to caricature Hilary Clinton in the US. “My eyes are not looking right,” he said when the first batch came in. “People should know my face. If they don’t know my face, how will they know me?”

It was only when Modi tried his hand at omnipresence that his narcissism paid off. He would break the world record for the most simultaneous broadcasts of a Pepper’s Ghost Illusion when rolling out live 3D hologram broadcasting, first across his own state and then the whole country. By the end of the election, 1,400 3D rallies had taken place, reaching 15 million voters, many of whom in rural India with no concept of electricity. For them, Modi was a deity.

When an astrologer tells a young boy that he will be very special, he can afford to refer to himself in the third person, change his kurta several times a day to get the colour right, wear suits with his name threaded many times into the pinstripes; he can take the BJP nomination for granted and wake up the day after his election and apparently show no interest in the result. Modi was much more popular than his party, and he knew it. His larger than life character elevated his standing, and while his manifesto was thin on detail, his broad principled stance on corruption, development issues and national unity coupled with his unprivileged roots was sufficient. He portrayed himself as a man ready to take his country in a new direction.

In the end, Modi won the election due to an innovative use of digital technology and a well implemented strategy which recognised a new contradiction in Indian society – that of urban prosperity and rural subsistence. His team knew they couldn’t win the election online. They still had to produce TV adverts, conduct interviews (however reluctantly), hold live rallies, canvass and get out the vote through a well-managed command and control structure.

Modi built a formidable ecosystem involving the RSS, the BJP and his new army of followers. One million people who attended the morning shakhas meetings in over 50,000 towns and villages were now charged by Ram Madhav – Supreme Leader of the RSS and now national general secretary of the BJP – with spreading the word to friends and family and through their trade union network, reaching up to 45 million people.

Alongside these party cadres, the Campaign for Accountable Governance, under Prashant Kishor, was tasked with taking Brand Modi into the dark zones of the country, organising events such as the ‘Run for Unity’ marathon in 10,000 locations on the 63rd anniversary of the death of Sardar Patel, the man who helped unify India after independence and on whom Modi models himself.

The BJP and Narendra Modi succeeded in winning the election but with just 31% of popular votes, they have by far the weakest mandate, in terms of vote share, ever conferred on a single party governing in the Lok Sabha. For the first time, the ruling party has no sitting Muslim MPs, and Modi leads a country in which almost half (49%) voted for neither BJP nor Congress, the two national parties, last year.

Lance Price’s account is lucid, fair and gripping, and includes broad contributions from party workers, civil society and the media. It helps us solve the contradictions of Narendra Modi, but now that the election is won, he is at the mercy of the vagaries of his country. His party’s recent drubbing in the Bihar regional elections is a testament to that.

While Narendra Modi has shaken up the Indian establishment, he still has a long way to go to secure the place in history he feels he deserves. One thing is for sure, though. When Modi appears later today at Wembley Stadium to address British Indians, he will be looking majestic.

The Modi Effect – Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India. Lance Price, Hodder and Stoughton, RRP £25 

 Zac Tate is Deputy Editor of CapX