The Emperor’s New Clothes

Another sham work of propaganda poses as Modi’s latest biography

Modi smelling flowers. Aggarwala and Horan’s biography of Modi contains over a thousand photos of its subject in a mind-bending range of poses. COURTESY ADISH C AGGARWALA
Modi smelling flowers. Aggarwala and Horan’s biography of Modi contains over a thousand photos of its subject in a mind-bending range of poses. COURTESY ADISH C AGGARWALA
01 July, 2020

FOR A BIG CROWD at a book launch in late August last year, Amit Shah was the proverbial elephant in the room. The home minister was invited to be the chief guest of the high-security event, held at the NCUI Auditorium in Delhi. The occasion was the launch of The New Delhi Conspiracy—a political thriller, co-authored by the Bharatiya Janata Party MP and national spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi, about a plot to kill a beloved prime minister named Raghav Mohan, known to the people as RaMo. While the audience waited, there were fillers to keep them entertained, including refrains of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and a poetry recitation about Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A massive flex with Amit Shah’s face was on the stage. In some of the photos subsequently shared on social media, his chin towers over Lekhi and other discussants. When, eventually, it seemed clear that Shah was not showing up, JP Nadda, the BJP’s national president, released the book.

Eight months later, the launch of Narendra Modi: Harbinger of Prosperity & Apostle of World Peace—to celebrate six years of the Modi government—promised another high-profile chief guest. News articles claimed that the US president, Donald Trump, was meant to inaugurate the “world’s largest biography-release,” before COVID-19 put an end to such grand plans. The organisers had to make do with the former chief justice of India KG Balakrishnan, a judge whose reputation is tainted with numerous allegations of corruption.

The Zoom event that took place on 29 May could ultimately afford only a pale imitation of the jingoistic pomp and bustle of the Lekhi book launch. A disorienting feedback in the video recording uploaded to YouTube kept turning introductions of guests into mournful echoes: “Sri Sri Sri Sri Gurudev Gurudev Ravi Ravi Shankar Shankar.” And the coffee-table book itself was apparently so heavy that Balakrishnan and Adish C Aggarwala, one of the authors, brandished colour printouts of the cover instead. Ravi Shankar, a well-known godman, blessed the book, after which his video feed was replaced by a field of pretty flowers. Ramdev, another godman, also blessed the book and talked tangentially about yoga as a cure to any ailment. Speakers praised the book and Modi’s handling of the national response to the pandemic. The BJP leader Bhubaneshwar Kalita, for instance, chipped in with a cheerful lie: “Our prime minister has already given 100,000 crore to examine and to research on the vaccine, and bring out the vaccine as early as possible.” 

When the call’s attendees did not call out “hellos” and interrupt speakers at random, Aggarwala kept muttering instructions to a man outside the frame. But the most awkward presence was that of the book’s American co-author, Elisabeth Horan, who was smiling genially and saying nothing. Nearly an hour into the launch, she took the Zoom stage with her camera off. She described herself as an “acclaimed feminist poet,” but said that the book was her greatest achievement so far. The “great nation of India,” in her mind, is a “land of dreams,” and she prayed that she could one day visit. “Trump is Trump but Modi is a true gentleman,” she said, whom she likes, among other things, for not just seeking out the camera. In a poem titled “It Takes A Great Leader,” she celebrates how Modi “wash[es] his people clean in the soothing arms of the Ganges.” She had bought a dress for the launch.