Tavleen Singh on her private encounter with Narendra Modi

Tavleen Singh
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Book cover of Messiah Modi?

Title: Messiah Modi?
Author: Tavleen Singh
Publication: HarperCollins India
Pages: 293
Price: Rs 699

Almost exactly a year earlier I had been granted an audience with Narendra Modi. I had gone to present him with a copy of my book India’s Broken Tryst that had just been published. It was only because of this that I was granted an audience. It was the first private conversation I had with him after he became Prime Minister. We met in that same room with glass walls looking onto manicured lawns in which I had last met him with a group of journalists. He looked serene, well groomed and had about him an aura of power that I had not noticed in the days before he became Prime Minister. There was also a new coldness in his manner. He seemed to have forgotten how to smile and in his eyes was a messianic glitter as if talking to a mere mortal required effort.

As always, our conversation was uninterrupted by aides or phones. We talked about a lot of things, perhaps because this was not an official interview. He told me that he was unable to understand how to deal with the media, making it clear that the media had always treated him unfairly. When he was Chief Minister, he said, a journalist had criticised him for wearing designer glasses and expensive watches. He was hurt by the criticism. So he sent him to the shop in Ahmedabad where he had bought his glasses for many years so that he could see that they cost no more than a few hundred rupees. And shown him that he wore a simple Indian watch. He even sent him to the tailor who had stitched his clothes for years. He did this, he said, in the hope that the journalist would write that he had been wrong about these things. He never did.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Express Archive)

...We moved from his personal grievances against the media to the economy. I got the impression that he was worried that it seemed to be moving more slowly than he had expected and that foreign investors were not lining up at India’s gates with bags bursting with money. With a really gloomy expression on his face he told me that he had made a mistake by not ordering a white paper on the state of the economy he had inherited. Things were much, much worse than he had believed. He did not say this in so many words but sort of admitted that he had papered over the extent of damage to the economy in the hope that investors would come from foreign lands to support his Make in India programme...

He did most of the talking but at some point I managed to ask him why he had spoken so rarely against the lynchings. He said, “The thing is that something terrible happens almost every day in this country, so if I started to talk about these things I would do almost nothing else.” It was a disheartening response. But I continued to support him in my column [in The Indian Express] because I still believed that he was capable of changing India’s economic direction in a way that would bring real prosperity... I supported him also because I believed that most Delhi journalists, later known as ‘the Lutyens cabal’, had been less than fair to him. They had allowed Sonia Gandhi and her son to get away with every stupidity but had been trying to prove from the day Modi became Prime Minister that he was a monster who was bent on destroying the ‘idea of India’...

So when Modi complained about the media’s unfairness he had a point. At a personal level I continued to support him because having always lived in Lutyens’ Delhi and consorted with the ruling class, it made me happy that someone who did not belong to this English-speaking, colonised elite group had become Prime Minister. I continued to support him because I believed that this colonial elite class, to which I myself belonged, had not done well by India. We had continued to treat India as a colony in much the same way as the British had. Just as they had built for themselves summer resorts in the hills to escape the brutal heat of Indian summers and cantonments in our cities in which only they lived and clubs in which ‘dogs and Indians’ were forbidden, we had built our own India within India...

We built a private India Club into which the real India rarely entered, except in the form of mosquitoes which brought dreadful diseases like dengue and malaria to remind us of the cesspool that lay outside. And there were the flies which were a terrible nuisance at our garden parties and in our drawing rooms before air-conditioning solved at least this indoor problem. When the roots of democracy grew deeper and stronger and brought to Parliament semi-literate peasant politicians, we allowed them into our charmed circle so we could mock them privately. We loved peasant leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav because they confirmed to us that on our benign watch real democracy had reached India’s grassroots. Modi was another thing altogether. A phenomenon we did not understand at all, and something that threatened our charmed way of life. I, who was sick of the corrupt, colonial elite among whom I had spent most of my life, welcomed the idea of a man who might give ordinary Indians the chance to live a halfway decent sort of life. Sadly, once he became Prime Minister, he seemed to forget this promise of ‘parivartan’.