How the West was won by Narendra Modi

Here's some solace for the Muslim groups outraged at Time's decision to put Narendra Modi on the cover of their South Asia edition. Despite its top billing, the actual story gets only two pages in the March 26 issue, which also contains a four-page spread on the Danish chef Rene Redzepi and a three page meditation on the British fashion label Mulberry. In other words, Modi's cover status says more about Time's marketing strategy than its editorial viewpoint. [The story is not available online for non-subscribers]

Compared to the exhaustive Caravan piece published earlier this month, the Time offering is far less substantive but also more flattering. Unlike Vinod Jose, Time's Jyoti Thottam did manage to wrangle an interview with the big man himself, but the rest of her sourcing is a little thin: two academics, one Hindu businessman, and a Muslim auto driver. Despite such access, the few quotes from Modi sprinkled across the narrative aren't particularly illuminating. Asked about the riots, he says, "I don't want to talk about the subject. Let people say what they want to say. My actions speak."

Thottam's story is high on colourful but dubious assertions like this one explaining Modi's fasts: "It's Modi in makeover mode: an act of self-purification, humility and bridge building in a state that is still traumatised by the Hindu-led anti-Muslim massacres of 10 years ago and the flawed investigations in their wake." Not even Modi's most loyal supporters would accuse him of humility, and certainly there is little indication that Modi thinks his 'self' is in need of 'purification' – and certainly not for anything he did during the riots.

Thottam's story is high on colourful but dubious assertions. AFP

But Modi supporters will be happy to know that the article's primary gist is that "the future belongs to him," as social scientist Tridip Suhrud puts it. Why? Indians are "weary of the coalition" led by a "diffident" Manmohan Singh; we are hoping for a firm, no-nonsense leader" who will lead us out of the "mire of chronic corruption and inefficiency" and allow us to be finally "on par" with China.

On the blog, Thottam expands on the Chinese parallel:

"Even if he doesn’t become prime minister, Modi offers a glimpse of what India might be like if it became, as some of its critics wish, a little more like China. He represents a new kind of Indian politician — democratically elected but authoritarian in style and spirit. “The future belongs to him,” says Suhrud. “The future belongs to that kind of politics.”

It's a debatable proposition given that there is almost no recorded instance of the country marching dutifully to the tune of one autocratic leader. The closest we ever came to it was under Indira Gandhi, and even she was not able to mold the nation in her image – India was never Indira. If Modi plans to be Prime Minister, he will have to find a different style of politicking that can carry an immensely diverse, anarchic nation with him, including an array of strong regional leaders.

But the Time story mostly side-steps such complexities by taking Modi's own cue, and repeatedly beating the development drum. In an ironic sense, it helps prove Vinod Jose's point about Modi's PR machine.

"In the wake of the 2002 riots, Modi skillfully painted any criticism of his government’s misdeeds as an attack on Gujarat and Gujaratis. Over the past few years, and with considerably more subtlety, he has achieved the same thing with the story of the state’s development miracle," writes Jose, who goes on to argue that the Modi's miracles may be more fiction than fact:

The state’s GDP growth has only slightly outpaced India as a whole over the past decade. But this is to be expected: Gujarat has long been an industrialised state—and in fact, growth rates under Modi are not significantly higher than they were in the prior two decades. Though Modi has presented Gujarat as the clear leader among Indian states in attracting foreign direct investment, it ranked fourth among states on this measure between 2000 and 2009, and in 2011 fell to sixth place...

Data from the Planning Commission, meanwhile, show that in spite of Gujarat’s economic growth, the state lags behind even Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh in rates of poverty reduction. According to the 2011 India Human Development Report, Gujarat also scores poorly in several social indicators, with 44 percent of children under five suffering from malnutrition, worse than Uttar Pradesh.

By themselves, these statistics hardly constitute an indictment of Modi’s record. They merely suggest that his carefully constructed image as an economic miracle-worker has been the result of a well-managed public relations campaign whose false premise is that Gujarat stands head and shoulders above every other Indian state in growth and development—and that anyone who presents data to challenge this narrative is only twisting the truth in order to malign Modi and every Gujarati.

We may debate the facts, but one remains incontrovertible: that Modi has managed the state he inherited and his image with great skill. And irrespective of one's personal opinion of the man, it is clear that his PR offensive is gaining traction in the West. Where the Time story at least acknowledges the naysayers, the Brooking Institute's William Antholis is unabashedly admiring – and reveals how Modi savvily positions himself according to his audience. [Read the op-ed here

In Antholis' encounter with him, we're introduced to Modi the devout environmentalist who plans to cut fossil fuel use, invest in renewable energy, and even has a little glossy pamphlet titled Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response to Climate Change to cement his claims. “For me, this is a moral issue. You don’t have a right to exploit what belongs to future generations. We are only allowed to milk the earth, not to kill it," he tells Antholis.

Does it work? Here's how Antholis concludes his op-ed:

I came away thinking that this was a man America needed to know better. He may never be able to move past his role in the 2002 riots. But he is a talented and effective political leader, and will continue pushing New Delhi and not following. He has successfully tackled some of India’s toughest problems, but also has touched its most sensitive nerves. He is wrestling with major global challenges, with all the complexities that implies for a man with strong nationalist convictions. One thing is certain— he will continue to be a force in Indian politics.


Updated Date: Mar 19, 2012 12:33 PM

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