Modi May Be a Master Storyteller But the Spell From His Yarns Is Going to Wear Thin

The prime minister believes truth is weak and has stopped caring about the “credibility” of his utterances and pronouncements.

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Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent performance in the Rajya Sabha, Jairam Ramesh, who is developing a second career as chronicler of our recent history, put out a tweet:

“True to his character, the PM falsified history yet again today. He claimed that Majrooh Sultanpuri was jailed in 1949 for attacking Nehru. Majrooh Saab was in fact prisoned with many other Communists that year as the CPI had announced a revolution against the Indian Government.”

Ramesh must have felt pleased for having wrong-footed the prime minister but his tweet reminded me of a dialogue from Sam Bourne’s thriller, To Kill The Truth. A Steve Bannon-type character is mockingly telling a Jairam Ramesh-like liberal interlocutor:

“I don’t blame you for not getting this, Maggie. I really don’t… America is the land where you write your own script, tell your own story—whatever you want it to be. Don’t let a few tedious, Ivy League… UN-backed, peer-reviewed, limp-wristed, European ‘facts’ get in your way. Leave that to the bores in the reality-based community. Write your own story. That’s what America’s about. And that’s what he’s doing. And that’s why he’s still there, behind the big desk in the Oval, despite your best efforts.”

The “he”, of course, is Donald Trump. He may be out of “the Oval” but he is still commandeering the allegiance of a near majority and continuing to set a bad example for all tin-pot autocrats lurking around in uncertain democracies.

And, Narendra Modi is a perfect copycat. His handlers are all trained in the skills, orientations and morals of the American right-wing rhetorical school of utter disdain for facts and history. There is nothing desi about Modi’s manufactured political persona.

In essence, Modi has cast himself in the role of a master storyteller, brilliantly titillating our imagination and credulity. As the Bannon-esque character, smug in his success in hijacking the American mind-space, pontificates:

He [Trump] understood that the truth is weak.

That’s right, Maggie, weak. All this stuff—the historical record, the facts, the truth– you guys always big it up like it’s some terrifying adversary. But now, thanks to him [ Trump], I know that the opposite is true. It’s fragile.”

Some may object that I should not cite a pulp-fiction writer to make an intellectually serious argument. Perhaps. But, then, a paperback leader can only be explained and understood by a paperback book.

The brutal dialogue from To Kill The Truth helps us understand the ruthlessness behind Modi’s total disdain for facts, figures, data and history. The Jairam Rameshes, Shashi Tharoors and Ramachandra Guhas can keep on citing facts and history to show up the prime minister; unfazed, Modi will keep on telling his own invented stories – tales of conspiracy, back-stabbing, looting, betrayal, treason.

By now, it should be obvious to most that Modi is not in the business of seeking the approval of the Khan Market-centric intelligentsia. As a modern-day emperor, he knows that he can – and, indeed does – buy the public support of very many card-carrying members of the much-derided Nehruvian elite. Expediency and opportunism are class-neutral. The Jaishankars and the Hardeep Puris have already nuzzled up to Modi’s protective apron. And, then, there is enough mediocrity in our universities to staff the UGC and the NITI Aayog and the other sites of knowledge-authority.

As a master storyteller, Modi has stopped caring about the “credibility” of his utterances and pronouncements. He is not there to defend a doctoral thesis before a panel of professors. His audience is different, and he controls the stage. There was a time when parliament insisted on factual information and accurate statements; that forum is no longer an area for accountability.

It is one thing for a prime minister to insinuate this or that ‘conspiracy’ against the country or his government at a political rally; it is quite another to suggest – that too in parliament – that the grievous dislocation, misery and pain suffered by migrant workers during the pandemic was caused by a conspiracy hatched by the non-BJP governments in Mumbai and Delhi.

Migrant workers rest on a railway track during the 21-day nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in Mumbai, April 2, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Prashant Waydande

Liberals are free to tut-tut such monumental insensitivity but the storyteller is supremely pleased with his own tale. In a way, Modi is practicing the familiar, duplicitous game of legitimising political power by conjuring up half-facts and false figures to justify his regime and its excesses and its failures. He is emboldened by the fact that those who assume to speak for this or that ‘Idea of India’ lack the standing and personality to inspire respect and acceptance.

Of course, the Opposition’s flaws and frailties do not validate Narendra Modi’s license to keep hijacking our imagination with tales of invented facts. Because every story also has a moral, carrying with it a justification and legitimisation of the hero’s aberrations and eccentricities. That is why the Donald Trump faction still has the gall to insist the violent assault on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021 was “legitimate political discourse”. The Modi crowd, too, has worked itself up to believe in the curative power of coercion and intimidation.

Yet, at the end of the day, the storyteller has to contend with the reality of something called the constitution of India, with its injunctions and stipulations. And let’s not forget the ultimate audience: the voters who do a ‘reality-check’ of their own against the yarn-spinner’s tale – and, then, break the spell.

Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.