The Modi Effect, by Lance Price

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Lance Price presents his book to Prime Minister Modi

The first and most important thing that Lance Price wants you to know from his book The Modi Effect, is that he, Lance Price, is a BIG DEAL. He has worked for Tony Blair as his Director of Communications. He has met Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama. He even once had a 10 minute conversation with Nelson Mandela.

So it is only natural that Narendra Modi should chose him, Lance Price, to write this book on Modi’s successful 2014 election campaign. Price suggests this is an act of particular self confidence on Modi’s part, because someone who is as BIG a DEAL as Lance Price is not to be trifled with. “You can’t spin a spinner“, Price informs us early on, because he is a BIG DEAL, and used to work for Tony Blair.

To which I thought, “Hmmm… lets see.”

The thing is though Price is not really interested in India, per se. Price is interested in elections. So he is only interested in India insofar as it relates to his story of the conduct of this election. And he is interested in Modi because he won an overwhelming electoral victory in the world’s largest democracy.

Hence we get extensive passages on Modi’s personal fashion sense, branding, merchandising, manifesto writing, use of social media and technology, including the tour through rural areas of his hologram so he could make speeches to communities with no electricity or television. The deeper question, of what Modi really believes and represents is addressed in only a fragmentary fashion

Price discusses some of the key controversies relating to Modi, in particular his relationship with the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP that many progressive Indians accuse of neo-fascism, Hindutva – the ideology of Hindu nationalism, and the 2002 Gujarat riots in which a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed on his watch as Chief Minister of the state. But Price insists on casting these issues in the most benign light possible. The RSS, he suggests, may be no more sinister than the UK’s trade union movement. Hindutva as espoused by Modi, shouldn’t really be seen as that antagonistic towards India’s non-Hindus.

As for the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Indian Supreme Court itself found that Modi couldn’t be held culpable. This may be true. Nehru should not be held directly culpable for the atrocities during the partition of India. But then Nehru spoke loudly against the bloodshed, personally faced down Hindu mobs to protect the lives of Indian Muslims, and ultimately managed to bring Nepalese and southern Indian troops into place to stop the killing. The best that Modi, that master of language, could bring himself to say regarding the bloodshed was if “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.”

Price notes that following the 2002 riots Gujarat has been peaceful and economically prosperous under Modi’s rule. Perhaps that shows his enlightenment? Perhaps it shows an effectively terrorised minority? Rather than deign to talk to Gujarati Muslims, Price is content that the carnage of the Gujarat riots “pains” Modi “greatly“.

But the fact that Modi has never been forceful in his denunciation of the 2002 or other alleged Hindu atrocities indicates, at best, a profound cynicism on Modi’s part, that he is not prepared to alienate even his most fratricidal potential supporters. The conduct of the 2014 election in Uttar Pradesh, in which Modi’s BJP stirred up caste and sectarian prejudices to win the election is further evidence that his BJP is less benign than Modi would like to portray. In two of the more interesting chapters towards the end of the book Price finally seems to recognise Modi’s silence on these issues cannot be excused as a mere political calculation, but rather they indicate a profound moral failure, that as elected leader of India Modi is making no effort to confront some of the darkest and most atavistic aspects of Indian society that have disfigured the world’s largest democracy since independence.

Overall The Modi Effect has some interesting information, but it would have benefited from a greater interest by Price in Indian politics instead of just Indian elections. And it would have benefited even more if Price had perhaps been a little more interested in the lives and experiences of the millions of Indians who are not so nearly as BIG a DEAL as he is.

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The Pigeon Tunnel, by John le Carre

The Pigeon Tunnel is a memoir presented in the form of short stories and vignettes from the author’s life. Some are extremely funny. Some, such as his brief appreciation of his friendship with the late ITN newsreader Reggie Bosinquat, or his disclosure of how he came upon the character of Issa in A Most Wanted Man, are very moving. Some shine an unexpected light on aspects of world affairs in forlorn and forgotten places over the past 40 years. All are exquisitely written.

I cannot recall enjoying many books as much in recent years. And yet I am not sure I know David Cornwell, John le Carre’s alter ego, any better having just finished this book. Le Carre tells us much about the things he has done and seen, including, towards the end, a beautifully written chapter on his relationships with his parents, in particular his con-man father, Reggie.

John le Carre, aka David Cornwell

But there is always a sense that le Carre is only prepared to disclose so much and is wholly in control of those portions of his biography that he is prepared to be known. He is substantially silent, of course, on much of his work as an MI6 officer. But he is also very silent on his love and family life: siblings and offspring are referred to with much affection but little information; the ending of his first marriage is referred to only obliquely, as is his finding love with his second wife, Jane.

In truth le Carre’s subject in The Pigeon Tunnel, is not David Cornwell, but the books that Cornwell wrote under this nom de plume – their points of origin, the research undertaken to bring them to publication, and, occasionally the adventures involved in transposing them to film.

It’s a lovely and frequently fascinating excursion with one of the finest living writers of English. Treat yourself and read it!

Valiant Ambition – George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition is a sequel to Philbrick’s Bunker Hill. That prior book dealt with the origins of the American War of Independence in Boston, and covered key events including the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the initial clash of arms at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, where the American’s didn’t shoot until they could see “the whites of their eyes”, and Washington assuming command on the death of General Warren and finally driving the British from the city.

This book takes up the story with Washington’s incompetent defence of New York, his retreat into New Jersey and crossing of the Delaware in a desperate attempt to maintain some cohesion to his army, before his extraordinarily courageous counter attack, re-crossing the Delaware in mid-winter.

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Benedict Arnold

In parallel with Washington misadventures Philbrick describes the altogether more effective military exploits of Benedict Arnold, whose extraordinary courage and aggressive instincts time and time again thwarted British stratagems to snuff out the rebellion.

Arnold’s name has become a byword for perfidy in the United States. But Philbrick reminds us just how vital his role was in securing American independence. Philbrick notes how it was American victory in the Saratoga campaign which convinced France to enter the war on the side of the United States, and that it was Arnold’s actions at those battles that, more than anyone else, secured the victory.

But Arnold was a particularly thin skinned soul, and his shoddy treatment by the Continental Congress stoked his alienation eventually leading him to explore the possibility not only of defecting to the British, but inflicting a devastating blow to American independence by surrendering the fortress at West Point.

Self portrait of John Andre

Towards this end he established a line of communication with Major John Andre, a young British officer who had risen to the role of adjudant to Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York. By Philbrick’s account Andre is not the honourable officer of legend, brought low also by Arnold’s treachery. Rather Philbrick notes that he was a hugely charming and erudite officer but a thoroughly ambitious one with a ruthless streak, previously demonstrated by is involvement in actions that verged on being war crimes.

Philbrick argues that it was Arnold’s treason that was decisive in uniting the nation behind the cause of independence: one could get only so far with the inspiration of the heroic Washington, he argues. What the young nation really needed was a villain and Arnold, previously the most effective battlefield general in the American army, filled that role to perfection.

It is an intriguing tale. Doubtless Philbrick is already working on a follow-up.