Within the Saffron Family

Andrew Whitehead

  • The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India by Lance Price
    Hodder, 342 pp, £25.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 4736 1089 7
  • 2014: The Election that Changed India by Rajdeep Sardesai
    Penguin, 372 pp, £16.99, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 342498 7

Jashodaben was married at 17; her husband was a year or two older. It was an arranged match. They were both from the same underprivileged Hindu caste in Gujarat; they separated after three years or so. ‘We parted on good terms as there were never any fights between us,’ Jashodaben told a reporter last year. ‘In three years, we may have been together for all of three months. There has been no communication from his end to this day.’ Jashodaben, now in her sixties, is a retired teacher who lives with her brothers in the town of Unjha in Gujarat and spends much of her time praying. She never remarried and didn’t feel she was free to do so. After all, she declared in a recent affidavit, ‘I am the wife of the prime minister of India.’

Narendra Modi tried hard to conceal her existence. When he fought elections, he always left blank the column about marital status in the nomination papers. But as an aspiring prime minister in last year’s general election he could no longer get away with it. Rajdeep Sardesai, a TV anchor who has written a book about the election, says the fact that Modi, who became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, had ‘a wife tucked away in the village’ was one of the worst kept secrets in Gujarat politics – but even so, most Gujaratis, and certainly most Indians, didn’t know about it. When Sardesai wanted to find the missing wife a few years ago he was warned off: Modi, he was told, ‘is very sensitive about it’.

After her husband’s election victory, Mrs Modi was given a security detail. She filed a request under India’s freedom of information legislation to try to find out who authorised it and why. ‘I am surrounded by five security guards all the time,’ she told a reporter from Reuters. ‘Often my relatives or I have to cook for them, my sister-in-law has to make their beds. This is a bit annoying … It gets really chaotic when I have to travel, because I use public transport and the guards are following me in an air-conditioned car.’ Though she seemed unimpressed by the sole privilege she’d been awarded as her country’s first lady, Indian newspapers reported that she was willing to return to her husband’s side, if he asked. In May, unhappy that she hadn’t received a satisfactory answer and upset by the use of her maiden name in the official response, she submitted a second request. By this time, the media’s interest in her had largely faded, but the revelation had made clear how little India knew about its prospective leader and how different his background was from that of most of the country’s political elite.

Jashodaben’s name doesn’t appear in the index of Lance Price’s account of Modi’s rise to power. Her story is recounted briefly, along with Modi’s usual response: ‘Modi refuses to discuss the marriage.’ Price’s book is part of a rebranding exercise: it’s not a partisan account, but it is a result of the desire of Modi and the team around him to be, as they would see it, better understood. One of Modi’s London-based associates arranged access for Price, a former BBC political correspondent who worked as deputy communications director for Tony Blair. Modi usually keeps his distance from the media and particularly from organisations or individuals seen as liberal-inclined and unsympathetic, but eight weeks after his swearing-in, Price was ushered into Race Course Road for the first of four hour-long interviews. Nothing was off-limits, no copy approval was sought: it was a calculated risk to give a left-of-centre political writer so much access to the most right-wing prime minister in India’s history.

The risk paid off. Price’s account is respectful rather than admiring, but it contains none of the censure Modi often attracts. Price praises his determination and ‘indomitable will’. Of all the heads of government he has rubbed shoulders with, Price says that Modi is ‘without doubt the most intriguing and the hardest to fathom’. But the access he was given is more remarkable than anything he was told: the bulk of the book is an account of Modi’s ‘superbly fought and extraordinarily successful’ election campaign – though Price wasn’t in India at the time and doesn’t pretend to expertise in Indian politics. For a sense of place and occasion you need Sardesai’s effervescent account.

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