Journalists have been the first off the block in coming out with books on the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Close on the heels of Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2014: The Election That Changed India comes a book by another senior journalist, Harish Khare, titled How Modi Won It: Notes from the 2014 Election. Perhaps it was only natural and appropriate for journalists to give us a treatise on the elections first, considering that their industry, the news media, played a major role in catapulting Narendra Modi to power. During the launch of Sardesai’s book, senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram had quite fittingly described the book as a mixture of memory, notes and gossip. The same could be said of Khare’s book as it adopts a similar style of narration. There is however a salient difference in how the two authors deal with the principal character of their books, Modi.
While Sardesai paints quite a favourable picture of him for the most part, Khare is not as kind and this is perhaps the reason that at the very beginning of his book he cautions the reader that his is an ‘individualistic, partisan and subjective account.’ The author believes that ‘the country made a choice that it will regret’ and gives strong hints that the tactics adopted by the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate constituted a manipulation of democracy. A substantial part of the book reproduces a diary that Khare maintained during the election campaign. The diary jottings for the most part include the author’s remarks on articles from as many as a dozen newspapers and his personal interactions with politicians, bureaucrats and journalists during field visits. Ironically, in a book that is essentially about how Narendra Modi pulled off his election victory, the first mention of his name comes only on the fifteenth page as the author first pays tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru for his contribution in putting the country on the path to democracy. Throughout the book Khare oscillates between his grudging admiration for Modi’s public relations machine and innovative campaign strategies with his critical observations on Modi’s deliberate ploys to polarize voters on Hindu-Muslim lines. By doing so, i.e., by going against the tendency of attributing outstanding qualities to the winner no matter what, the author offers a much needed corrective to the one-sided and distorted media discourse surrounding the 2014 election thus far which has largely (and wrongly) viewed the election solely through the prism of Modi’s charisma, leadership skills and abilities to govern. This rather blunt and forthright aspect of the book is refreshing.
The rousing of religious passions for electoral gains is in fact the central argument that Khare makes. The words ‘communal’, ‘polarisation’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim’ appear frequently in the book. Several examples are given to show how BJP leaders and Narendra Modi himself ‘had run a pure Hindu-Muslim campaign’ and how Modi ‘designedly draped his campaign with divisive rhetoric.’ Apart from citing Amit Shah’s ‘apmaan ka badla’ speech in Muzaffarnagar and Giriraj Singh’s ‘go to Pakistan’ advice to Modi’s critics, the author devotes as many as six pages to a speech given by Modi at a rally in Udhampur in order to underscore Modi’s ‘very powerful use of religious symbolism’ and his ‘lapse into grotesqueness’. Moreover, Modi’s constant references to Rahul Gandhi as shehzada are interpreted, and rightly so, as a ‘very subtle invitation to his audience to equate his political rivals with Muslims.’
According to Khare, ‘the Narendra Modi Prime Minister Project had been in the making for over a dozen years’ and ‘from 1 March 2002 to 16 May 2014, he remained unwaveringly committed to the calculus of Hindu-Muslim antagonism.’ There is also mention of the role played by the BJP’s parent organization, the RSS, who the author contends resolved to defeat the UPA the day P. Chidambaram used the expression ‘Saffron Terror’ for the very first time. Quoting a senior but unnamed IPS officer, the author informs us about how ‘RSS men in UP were going door to door, making people listen to Owaisi’s tape…to whip up Hindu anger.’ There are also references to the critical involvement of RSS cadres in organizing Modi’s rallies which Khare laments did not get the media attention it deserved. In an interesting comment Khare alludes that the RSS’s appeal to the Hindu community for a 100 percent voter turnout in the election ‘dovetailed itself neatly’ with the voter education campaigns initiated by the Election Commission and the social media company Facebook. Indeed my own analysis of CSDS (whose integrity Khare indirectly casts aspersions on, sadly) survey data has revealed that Hindus turned out to vote in much greater proportions than Muslims did. Besides, the BJP attracted an unprecedented proportion of Hindu votes, even higher than what it used to get in the communally charged 1990s. Acknowledging this religious divide and how it was deepened by Modi and company is significant for explaining the 2014 verdict and Harish Khare does well by emphasizing it.
While Modi’s polarizing tactics draw much condemnation in the book, the author is equally harsh in his assessment of the role played by senior Congress leaders, however with one major exception. Khare who was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s media advisor for two and a half years shows a soft corner for Singh by not blaming him much for the UPA’s defeat. Instead he gives credit to Singh for having ‘given the awaam an imperceptible, priceless sense of assurance to flirt with change.’ It is the Gandhis, particularly Rahul, whose role gets discussed and criticized the most. He is dubbed as ‘directionless, purposeless and clueless’ and as someone who ‘remained singularly unwilling to yield to the demands of advertising, media and image-making’. For the author, ‘the young man seemed to have no hunger for power and no appetite for a political fight.’ Considering Rahul’s strategies yielded only 44 seats to the Congress, it is difficult to disagree with Khare’s assessment; however one also gets the feeling that by letting Manmohan Singh entirely off the hook and pinning most of the fault on Rahul and his team, the author is being a little unfair. Moreover, in expressing his frustration with Rahul’s lack of interest in politics, Khare goes a bit overboard when he narrates a journalist friend’s tale of how she had once spotted Rahul having dinner at a restaurant with a few ‘non-political’ friends which included ‘one woman wearing a short dress.’ Such gossip, although entertaining, degrades the discourse of what is otherwise a fine book. A.K. Antony and Mani Shankar Aiyar are the other senior Congress leaders who find special mention in the book. While Antony is described as having ‘single-handedly managed to contribute substantially to the Congress rout’ by his handling of the V.K. Singh controversy, Aiyar’s Chaiwallah remark aided by Rahul Gandhi’s indirect approval of it is estimated by the author to have ‘cost the Congress at least 100 Lok Sabha seats.’
The Aam Admi Party and Arvind Kejriwal are not spared either. On at least three separate occasions in the book the author suggests that had Kejriwal not quit in Delhi, Modi would not have won the massive mandate that he did. In the author’s opinion, by calling for the ‘disintegration’ of the Congress ‘the AAP crowd seemed oblivious to the BJP’s subtle message that Narendra Modi alone can be a bulwark against the kind of anarchy so cheerfully being promised by Kejriwal.’
The media too comes in for rebuke, but ironically despite Khare’s extensive experience in journalism (he has been associated with The Hindu, Hindustan Times and The Times of India), he doesn’t really dwell upon the dubious part played by it. In a book of 242 pages, only six are specifically devoted to the media’s role. Worse, all we get are broad, generalized statements such as ‘large chunks of national media, especially its electronic wing, enrolled themselves as Narendra Modi’s event managers and cheerleaders’ and ‘all electronic channels had done some kind of “deal” with the Modi camp.’ Except for a reference to Barkha Dutt’s ‘trip journalism’ and Amar Ujala’s mischievous story on the arrests of alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives, not much specific evidence is offered to back up these claims, which is a pity for there is plenty that could have been highlighted to make a strong case against the media. Another aspect that the author touches upon but doesn’t quite go deep into is the much ignored issue of the role played by leading intellectuals in legitimizing Modi. Khare writes that ‘a sophisticated effort has been initiated to armour-plate Modi with intellectual respectability to help the middle classes come to terms with his past.’ Two scholars whose articles are specifically mentioned are Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Shiv Visvanathan. Perhaps this issue of intellectual responsibility (or irresponsibility, rather) could have also been explored further.
All in all, despite its inadequacies, the book is a candid and sincere account of the 2014 election, one that does not to seek to flatter the new dispensation like many others. More importantly, it offers a reassurance that there are still some in the media who are willing to call a polarizer a polarizer and not beat around the bush. To me the most accurate line of the book, one that indicts not only the winner but society in general, was this: ‘He was in sync with the taste, temper and temptations of the times. He was crude, vulgar, cheap, and coarse during his campaign.’
Shreyas Sardesai is Research Associate at Lokniti, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.