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Shades of Saffron by Saba Naqvi

Sometimes you can tell more about political parties and their leaders by judging the tone and tenor of journalistic coverage than by worrying too much about what the journos actually write.

This book is a case in point.Saba Naqvi has covered the BJP for decades, is extremely familiar with the inner workings of the party and writes well, in a breezy anecdotal style.


But the reader will note that when she deals with AB Vajpayee, his PMO and his years at the top, Naqvi writes with the confidence that comes from knowing the terrain well. When it comes to Narendra Modi, however, she is much more tentative. You rarely get a sense of Modi the man and his PMO remains a mystery.


   This is not a reflection on Naqvi’s abilities as one of India’s leading political reporters. But it tells us something about the difference between Vajpayee and Modi. Though he rarely gave interviews and was famously monosyllabic, Vajpayee ran an open Prime Ministership. He could get petulant about negative coverage (and Naqvi relates how she became a victim of Prime Ministerial pique) but his anger rarely lingered. And when there were failures --- his peace initiatives with Pakistan, ranging from the failed bus trip to the disastrous Agra summit ---- Vajpayee and his senior aides were willing to discuss them.


   In contrast, we know very little about the inner Modi (and we learn very little that is not already in the public domain from this book), his strategic vision, how decisions are made and how the Prime Minister reacts to his own failures: his Pakistan initiatives have been as unsuccessful as Vajpayee’s.


   Some of this has to do with attitudes to the press. Vajpayee liked journalists. He would pump them for gossip and information and when he travelled abroad, would take them out for dinner to restaurants. Modi, on the other hand, has probably been so wounded by his treatment at the hands of the press in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots that he is suspicious of the media, trusts only a few journos of a similar ideological bent and rarely lets his guard down when the press is around.


   So, even experienced journalists like Naqvi  never know what Modi is planning and the press is always taken by surprise: the sudden trip to Pakistan to eat cake with Nawaz Sharif, demonetisation, the choices of Yogi Adityanath as UP CM and RN Kovind as the President of India, and some of his recent cabinet appointments.


   "In contrast, Modi is all-powerful. Nobody in the party dares oppose any of his moves. His protégé Amit Shah, is the most powerful BJP President in history."

   There are other key differences between the Vajpayee and Modi Prime Ministerships. Vajpayee allowed his officers to become stars. Both Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra and PMO Secretary NK Singh would regularly appear on TV to explain governmental decisions. On the other hand, I doubt if most journalists would be able to even recognise the current Principal Secretary to the PM.


   Vajpayee also kept the opposition involved in the process of governance. Throughout his Prime Ministership. Vajpayee kept a channel open to the Congress, often using the old Foreign Service connection between Brajesh Mishra and Natwar Singh. When LK Advani was reported to have assured George W Bush that India would send troops to Iraq, Vajpayee tried to wriggle out of this awkward and unauthorised commitment. Mishra told me at the time that he had to ask Natwar Singh to organise noisy Congress protests so that Vajpayee could back out claiming that the Opposition would not let him send troops. These days, there are no such understandings. Both sides—-government and opposition --- hate each other.


   Nor was Vajpayee’s power unchallenged. There was always Advani, who Vajpayee secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) resented, who encouraged dissent within the cabinet. And the RSS let it be known that it had no love for Vajpayee.


   Some of what Vajpayee wanted to achieve remained undone because of these factors. For instance, Brajesh and Natwar had struck a deal (authorised by their bosses) to elevate Vice President Krishna Kant to the Presidency. That deal was shot down by Advani and the party. And as Naqvi relates in this book, Vajpayee had made up his mind to remove Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister after the riots. But he was unable to do so after his colleagues, led by Pramod Mahajan and Advani, revolted. (Advani must now wonder about his support for Modi then; the political equivalent of a turkey voting for an early Christmas.)


   In contrast, Modi is all-powerful. Nobody in the party dares oppose any of his moves. His protégé Amit Shah, is the most powerful BJP President in history. Even the RSS either approves of what the Prime Minister is doing or keeps its reservations to itself.


   One day, somebody with access and insight, should write a book on the remarkable rise of Modi and his transformation of the BJP from a party that believed in collective leadership to a party that swears only by the Supreme Leader.


   Till that happens, however, we have Naqvi’s book, an enjoyable, informative and pacey retelling of a crucial period in our history.



  • Dhanya Shahane 13 Jul 2018

    it appears more than Modi it is RSS that we'll never know much about. Some of the assumptions & anecdotes relating to RSS don't seem to ring true. Both Modi & Bajpayee had an ongoing tussle with RSS but they also enjoyed unstinted support.
    From what I gather Bajpayee was more of an adherent of Sangh than even Modi is, as he was more likely to be pliable to their command. (remember your article about how Modi is unpredictable - I think the RSS would concur!)

Posted On: 12 Jul 2018 11:30 AM
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