Seeing is believing

How the media covered Modi is not relevant, but the fact that he has been the staple diet of our media since 2002 is. How the media covered Modi is not relevant, but the fact that he has been the staple diet of our media since 2002 is.

Modi has positioned himself not just as a leader, but also as an object of mass consumption — a strategy that speaks of our times.

Even the BJP prime ministerial candidate’s most ardent supporter would agree that there is something baffling about the Narendra Modi phenomenon. It is not often that someone turns public opinion around in the dramatic fashion that he has managed. Commuting nationwide repugnance into widespread adoration would seem an impossible task for the most dexterous alchemist; yet, he has done it, and in just a little over a decade. This startling turnaround is not the only unusual factor in his case. He is probably the first sitting chief minister to be confirmed as a prime ministerial candidate by a national party. And this is even though he has neither seniority nor political lineage, essential qualifications for seekers of high office. Indeed, he has gone farther in a shorter time than any Indian politician outside
of a political dynasty.

Modi’s handlers would probably think these musings superfluous. The 2002 violence is history after the courts gave him a “clean chit”, they are likely to say, and the career bump is not a matter of wonder, just apiece with the awe-inspiring job he has done in Gujarat. And this brings us to the other perplexing matter nobody is quite clear about: what it is that he is purported to have done in Gujarat. Comparative data from across the country disproves Gujarat’s claims of exceptionally high growth or snowballing foreign investment. On human indicators, Gujarat has disappointed and environmentalists and civil libertarians are concerned about many of Modi’s policies.

Even assuming that considerable development has taken place and Gujaratis are happy with Modi’s governance (and their repeated faith reposed in him at the hustings seems to suggest as much), is their satisfaction proof enough for the rest of India of the viability of Modi’s vision?

Since he has arrived on the national scene, Modi has acquired a reputation for tall claims (remember the story about rescuing 15,000 Gujaratis from flood-hit Uttarakhand?). His speeches, full of hyperbole, familiar taunts and rhetorical flourish, may be stirring but do not suggest that he has workable solutions for the country’s problems. He avoids putting himself into situations he cannot control. He rarely gives interviews and has been known to terminate conversations with journalists when the questions make him uncomfortable.

And yet, opinion polls show him to be the frontrunner in the prime ministerial stakes, which means he has convinced a lot of people that he is a leader to be trusted. I am not saying they are wrong, but how has a leader who offers so little credible information managed to …continued »