Prime Minister Narendra Modi finished 20 years of public life this week, a milestone the Bharatiya Janata Party celebrated. A politician’s career is all about the narrative arc, not just the growth arc, in terms of power. But Modi’s public life – from being the Gujarat chief minister to now being the prime minister – doesn’t show an arc. Throughout the past 20 years, Modi has pretty much remained the same. As the Lakhimpur Kheri tragedy unfolded, he chose instead to praise Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s vikas work. Exactly six years ago, he tweeted to wish cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu a speedy recovery from deep vein thrombosis, ten days after Mohammed Akhlaq’s mob-murder in Dadri. At the time, Omar Abdullah had said the cricketer’s blood clot received more attention from the prime minister than Akhlaq’s cold-blooded murder.
Since his Gujarat days, he is eloquent only when Hindus are killed or when Islamist terrorists explode a bomb. However, he has largely been silent on lynching episodes and other hate crimes and now on the Lakhimpur Kheri farmers’ killings.
This sameness has been hailed as consistent by some, as being crucial to political optics. However, it is particularly distressing when a leader’s lack of narrative arc traps a nation’s story in a one-sided monotone.
Modi is India’s chief narrator today. But with him, we only get half the story, even if that half is keeping a vocal majority happy and chuffed.
There is a concept in literary criticism called the ‘unreliable narrator’. PM Narendra Modi is India’s ‘unreliable narrator’. Who tells the story and how it is told is as critical to a novel as to a nation. In journalism, we say you should never become the story. In Modi’s India, the narrator and the nation have become tightly hyphenated.
The unreliable narrator in the India story
An author or the narrator-protagonist in fiction is called an ‘unreliable narrator’ when their narration is deliberately misleading and manipulates the reader’s trust. A nation’s narrator can either be the public or the top politician. Sometimes, the storyteller is the Gross Domestic Product, like in the tiger economies; or a military-Islamist ideology like in Pakistan; or a strongman like in Turkey and Hungary. For the longest time in India, the narrators were Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and this continued even posthumously. Then, for two decades beginning in 1991, the narrators were the people who contributed to the “India story”.
Now, Modi has assumed the role of a first-person narrator of a new Hindutva-guided India. India is, after Nehru and Indira Gandhi, in first-person narration style once again. First-person narrators are seen as largely unreliable in novels because they impose their prejudices and intrigues on the storyline. They bring unnecessary incongruity and plot twists to distract and derail, leaving the reader confused.
Other narrators of India
Post-Independence, India’s upper-caste Hindu liberals have been the narrators. They have expressed superficial guilt about the caste system and Partition. They have tried to atone for it through wordplay and endeavours like “unity in diversity”, “end to untouchability” and “castelessness”. They glossed over structural casteism, Islamic invasions and quickly fast-forwarded a few centuries to reach the glory of Mughal rule, Sufi mystics, and ganga-jamuni culture. Nation-building was the need of the hour. This lasted from Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi. And the prime ministers fashioned the nation in their persona.
Then came the people-narrators.
The Constitutionalists were the new narrators of India in the 1990s and the 2000s. The two decades that followed saw the rise of new social justice warriors, Ambedkar-ites, and public interest litigation-activists. Equality was replaced by equity. They challenged the status-quoist upper-caste liberals who advocated the gradualism of token gestures of inclusion instead of real representation.
This ran parallel to the growth of the middle-class as the real chroniclers of what came to be known as the “India story”. An entire generation of GDP-worshippers was born overnight and they were rejecting the Hindu rate of growth, just as Hindutva was unfurling on the streets of small-town India.
Sometimes, Constitutionalists and GDP-worshippers were at loggerheads, but not always. The heady two decades were all about Indians pursuing social equity and economic growth, or what former prime minister Manmohan Singh called “inclusive growth”. Global observers of India took note of both Mayawati and the market. The world viewed us the same way we viewed ourselves. There was no cognitive dissonance. This was an example of reliable narration.
In the new India, the Constitution isn’t what the Hindutva politicians hark back to. Instead, they locate the founding template of the republic in a much older time, which they can write upon as they wish.
Learning from Rushdie
Holden Caulfield, who J.D. Salinger created in his own image, was a first-person narrator of The Catcher in the Rye and was unreliable because of his age and inexperience. So was Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children because he keeps getting the facts about Ganesha and Gandhi deliberately wrong.
Celebrating Modi’s 20 years, BJP president J. P. Nadda said the prime minister had pulled India out of an atmosphere of disappointment and made it a global power and player. This, uttered at a time when world leaders and the media are becoming increasingly critical, is similar to Modi’s loud silence during the carnage of the second Covid wave. When he eventually did emerge, he said, Uttar Pradesh had a double-engine government.
Here, Rushdie comes to the rescue.
“Reality is built on our prejudices, misconceptions and ignorance as well as on our perceptiveness and knowledge,” he wrote in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. “The reading of Saleem’s unreliable narration might be, I believed a useful analogy for the way in which we all, every day, attempt to ‘read’ the world.”
He also added that he used the unreliable narrator as a deliberate technique — “a way of telling the reader to maintain a healthy distrust.”
Therein lies the antidote to Modi’s unreliability. It will force the public to be more alert and more participatory as co-curators of the India Story. This is why we are seeing a profusion of dissenters and fact-checkers.
Rama Lakshmi is Opinion and Features Editor at ThePrint. She tweets @RamaNewDelhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)