In her latest book, Messiah Modi: A Tale of Great Expectations, Tavleen Singh, one of India’s most influential columnists, who is not averse to controversy, details her early support for Modi the candidate, followed by a helpless disenchantment with Modi the PM. In a frank and forthright reckoning of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she gives an intimate account of her subject—from lynchings to demonetization up to Article 370. Here, she tells Archana Pai Kulkarni why she believes that PM Modi may still turn out to be the messiah who will deliver.
You have attached the epithet ‘Messiah’ to Prime Minister Modi, and added a question mark too, reflecting both your doubt and hope. You have written, “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.”
The reason is that he began to sound messianic. I had hoped that he would be a messiah of growth and prosperity. It is what India needs after decades of the dead hand of socialism and statism.
You have been trolled for being a Modi supporter/bhakt; yet you were quite unflagging in your backing of his leadership. What kept you optimistic, despite a lot that was happening which did not go in his favour (demonetisation, keeping mum on lynchings, not engaging with the press, etc.?
Hope. I really continued to hope that he would do the things he promised to do: withdraw government from business. So that he could concentrate on improving our wretchedly awful systems of healthcare and education. And, that he would finally give India the 21st century roads, railways and other infrastructure she desperately needs.
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Do you think the dilution of the delivery of some of the PM’s plans is a result of the ever-present pressure of right-wing groups? Does he have the vision to subvert the Hindutva agenda and adopt a secular outlook? A messiah can’t be a selective saviour, can he?
It disappoints me that he is following the RSS agenda of obscurantism and economic illiteracy. He does not need the RSS. They need him.
You were obviously disillusioned with the PM and his policies at some point. You also experienced loss of favour with him and his agencies. You faced setbacks on a personal level too—when your partner Ajit Gulabchand received no support whatsoever for a promising project that was targeted by the earlier government, and later, your son Aatish Taseer, was deprived of his OCI card on grounds that he had ‘lied’ to the government. If one didn’t know better, you could be accused of making the personal political. Would you absolve yourself of this bias?
I wrote the book before Aatish’s OCI was taken away. I believe it to be the first instance of citizenship being weaponised. Now you can see that millions of Muslims are worried about citizenship being weaponised. Aatish has always lived in India and when I got him his PIO card in 2000 nobody asked me about his father’s nationality. I even mention his name in the application. So I did not lie. As for Ajit’s project, I write in the book that I am disappointed that despite clear instructions from Arun Jaitley the chief minister of Maharashtra did not even give Lavasa the status of being an infrastructure project for the refinancing to become possible. The loss is India’s because a model of Indian urbanisation has been destroyed along with the possibility of more than 100,000 jobs. Do you think this is a personal matter??
Considering the above, and the general atmosphere of fear and an implicit censorship, were you not afraid to write this book? Or do you think that the menace that is presumed to hang in the air is imagined and exaggerated, and that one can actually get away with criticising the leadership?
There is fear in the air. Journalists have been targeted for daring to criticise the government. I wrote the book because as a political journalist it is my duty to write as truthfully as I can about what is considered the first draft of history.
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PM Modi is criticised for remaining silent even on sensitive issues and matters that undermine peace, unity and democratic principles. What is your interpretation of this silence?
I think it could be the messianic element in Modi’s personality that causes him not to think it worthwhile to speak to journalists. When Trump was in India, it looked quite strange for him to give a press conference at which Modi was not a participant.
You have spoken about how the PM should be grateful to Rahul Gandhi for his words and actions, which are supposed reminders that there seems to be no alternative. Do you think so too?
I think new leaders will emerge. I am not pessimistic. But, I think Rahul Gandhi does not have leadership qualities.
You have written about the ‘Lutyens cabal’, a group of journalists, “who allowed Sonia Gandhi and her son to get away with every stupidity” while being hostile and unfair towards PM Modi. It is believed that his humble beginnings have invited contempt from this ‘elitist’ group, which can’t digest that ‘an unsophisticated outsider’ actually stormed a hereditary domain. What do you agree?
Yes, I believe that certain journalists who were part of the old elite show servility with the Gandhis and contempt for Modi.
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Between being projected as “God’s gift to India” by his supporters, and “a monster who was bent on destroying the idea of India” by the cabal, where do you place PM Modi?
I still think Modi is our best bet. But, he must deliver on real parivartan and vikas and not on a divisive and dangerous Hindutva agenda.
Have you presented a copy of your book to the PM? If so, and if he has read it, what has been his reaction?
I have not requested a meeting with the PM, because all earlier efforts to get one in the past three years have failed. Modi’s supporters troll me on a daily basis on social media.
This interview was conducted before the coronavirus lockdown