Modi Demystified: A skinny portrait lacking in deconstruction and rife with fabrication

By SB Veda

modi bookWhen an award-winning journalist writes a book about a polarizing leader like Narendra Modi, it tends to generate interest. On the surface, this would seem all the more prescient in Ramesh Menon’s book, Modi Demystified. The title promises to uncloak India’s international man of mystery, deliver insight into a figure both lauded as an economic savior and vilified as a religious zealot – but about which little is actually known on a deeper level. While the book provides some context for Modi’s rise and hints at the roots of his relentless ambition, it leaves one dangling very early on. In the end, little is actually revealed that it not already known (or misrepresented) the public sphere.

The book starts out by reporting background on the history, politics, and society in Gujarat, where Narendra Modi was born, raised, and made his bones in politics. In particular, Menon focuses on pre-existing religious tensions that were already forcing cracks in the edifice of Gujarati society long before the carnage of Godhra, which many have called a full-fledged Pogrom led by none other than Mr. Modi, himself. In this the book starts out promisingly but it falters only two chapters in.

Menon was a journalist in Gujarat and has written extensively about the riots in 2002. In his experience, he writes confidently about the time and what preceded it – in fact too confidently. Like other journalists writing of the riots, he takes verbatim myths offered as fact and reports them in his book. He repeats rumors of an altercation between Ramsevaks on the Sabarmati Express and a Muslim tea vendor as causing the conflict that might have provoked Muslims to set fire to the compartments that killed 58 Hindu pilgrims, saying “some accounts say there was an altercation between the Ramsevaks and a Muslim Tea Vendor at the station.” He fails to identify the authors of those ‘accounts,’ or comment on their credibility. Like other ‘accounts,’ it is passed off as truth.

What Menon does not elaborate upon is the same story alleges that the some Ramsevaks forcibly abducted the tea vendor’s daughter and locked her in a compartment. Then, the story goes, a fire was set to free her (justifying the murders). Seems a strange way to free an abducted girl: setting fire to the room, which imprisons her. Wouldn’t that fire have actually caused her harm, had she been inside? Might it have provoked her abductors to do her harm, even take her life? And, what happened to this girl? These are not questions Menon shows the slightest interest in answering. The Railway police investigated this and found the accounts to be fabricated. This is not mentioned by Menon.

Because of this altercation with the tea vendor, writes Menon, “A crowd of more than a thousand people converged and flames leapt out of bogies S6 and S7.” How did the flames leap out? By magic? No, according to Menon – it was set from inside. “As per one version, the fire started from within.” If the fire was accidental then, how is it related to the altercation with the tea vendor – and why couldn’t the passengers get out? In fact, the passengers were barricaded inside by those who had set the fire. Menon fails to mention forensic evidence of petrol used to spread the fire on purpose. And, the thousand people? They actually had converged at the station long before the train had stopped. Had they known an altercation would take place? More likely this a pretense that was popularized to massacre the Sevaks, who let’s rememember were burnt alive!

From the beginning, Menon suggests that the situation was orchestrated in order to foment a communal riot. “Instead of handing over the bodies (of the dead pilgrims) to the aggrieved families following a post-mortem, as should have been the norm, they were taken to Ahmedabad. As the hearses made their way to Sola Civil Hospital.” In fact, 54 of the 58 bodies were brought to Sola Civil Hospital for post-mortem – not afterwards as Menon states. The hospital located on the western outskirts of Ahmedabad was chosen because the locality had a very small Muslim population. State authorities thought cremating the bodies close to the hospital would help pre-empt violence rather than stoking it. Returning the bodies to villages where extended family members and community members would have received them seemed a far more incendiary thing to do. In fact, in Shashi Tharoor’s fictional exploration of communal violence, Riot, the returning of bodies to their villages ignites the glowing embers, fans the flames.

Menon blames the train victims for provoking gentle business people to perpetrate a gruesome burning of those in the two compartments. And afterwards, he writes that the VHP jumped at the opportunity to inflame Hindus in the state to retaliate after the bodies arrived in Ahmedabad. Actually, at the hospital, VHP international Vice-President Acharya Giriraj Kishore told reporters, “Hindus should maintain calm and keep patience. I appeal to Muslim brethren to condemn the attack and ask them not to put Hindus’ patience to test. Hindus are keeping a restraint but if such incidents do not stop, there can be a counter reaction which may be uncontrollable”
But again, these details didn’t make the cut in Menon’s account.

He also propagates the now horrific and rubbished myth that a pregnant Muslim woman named Kauser Bano from Naroda Patiya had her stomach slit open and that the mob, “pulled out the foetus and flung it in the fire.” Other accounts say that it was flung by the tip of a sword. This is in fact an egregious and dangerous lie. The Times of India and other dailies reported as much on March 18, 2010 quoting the doctor who conducted her post-mortem, J.S. Kanoria, telling the Special Court investigating the riots: “After the post-mortem, I found that her foetus was intact and that she had died of burns suffered during the riot.” He was also quoted telling India Today, “I have told the court what I had already written in my post-mortem report eight years ago. The press should have checked the report before believing that her womb was ripped open. As far as I remember, I did her post-mortem at noon on March 2, 2002.”

It would appear that Menon either does not read Indian newspapers and magazines or, despite facts to the contrary or ignores such facts to continue reporting falsehoods for an agenda known only to him. One can infer that he has spent a lot of time effort and energy – and made much money, propagating such lies in prior reporting and seeks not to correct or contradict himself in his book. This is not only demonstrates inexcusable lack of ethics but also serious malafide intent on his part.

There are many such details in his book. He goes on to write about fake encounters implicating those close to Modi, such as Amit Shah (and even with Shah, not directly) – but never Modi. He does, however appear to catch Modi embellishing and making statements that are not accurate. He cites examples demonstrating vanity and hubris at times- as though this is somehow a unique trait in a politician. But in a desperate attempt to go further, he retells stories of some bureaucrats whom in whom most readers would be scarcely interested who had been dealt unfair cards in Gujarat, apparently due to pettiness or vindictiveness of Modi. Aside from the fact that, rather than Modi pulling the strings, it is just as likely that other bureaucrats were behind this to curry favor with the then CM, such criticisms could just as easily be levied against Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and a host of other leaders. Pettiness is an epidemic in politics. Of what probative value is recounting transfers and early retirements to helping the reader understand Narandra Modi as a human being. In fact, it doesn’t shed any light on how he managed to go from a tea seller to the most powerful man in India. In short, Menon’s myopic focus on these matters is just as petty. And it is of little account.

Menon provides an overview of infighting in the BJP and how Modi overcame it, pushing adversaries aside. He points out that Modi came to prominence due to positioning himself close to BJP leader L.K. Advani whom he ended up unseating as favoured Prime Ministerial candidate in the struggle for leadership of the BJP in 2013. This is somewhat interesting but could easily be read googling articles. I felt as though I was opening up old newspapers rather than getting any new information.

Aside from the misrepresentations in this book, which has become par for the course in axe-grinding non-fiction in India, we are treated to a barrage of publicly available statistics and data which are what they are. But statistics don’t make up for insight. Other than the blurb on the back cover in which Menon apparently recounts a chance encounter with a young Modi when he was a Pracharak (or volunteer), which (likely) by design, connotes long and deep firsthand observation of the man in the book’s pages, it contains no actual witnessing. There are no off-the record snippets, no personal experiences, not even interviews of those remotely connected with him. And, many accounts submitted by critics or opponents are vaguely sourced.

This book is essentially a shoddy amalgamation fragile facts, poorly researched details and thinly attributed anecdotes from people who hardly matter- all masquerading as relevant information. If Menon had even interviewed a psychologist like Asish Nandy, it would have been more interesting. Nandy thinks Modi is a dangerous man and has in his writings, eloquently explained why – but there is no such analysis in this book. Only lies, pettiness, and factoids. The book obfuscates where it purports to clarify, and the content is, therefore, not worth the paper it is written on. But, Modi-bashing is popular and easily publishable it appears.

All of this might have been somewhat forgivable if Menon’s writing was, at least, interesting to read. Though apparently some kind of teacher of creative writing, his pen evidences a student submitting a homework assignment, gracelessly blundering through a litany of numbers and the stories around them with the subtlety of a drunken elephant. If the writing was imbued with wit or originality, the attacks would go down more smoothly. Unfortunately, the hot air consumed leaves one heavy, badly in need of literary belch.

There is a bright side to all this: despite all claims that India has become fascistic under Modi, if a book so obviously slinging falsehoods about him can get published by a major publisher without intimidation or incident, then the health of India’s democracy appears to be as strong as ever. Long live the freedom of the press! Even the careless members.

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