Among the most common clichés deployed against Narendra Modi is that he is a “polarising figure.” This phrase is by now so well-worn that we have, to our great credit, learnt to leave it to foreign correspondents.
But even this characterisation requires a founding assumption: that Modi experiences his own nature as a unity, and is only “polarising” with respect to that vast audience across Gujarat, India and the diaspora who either revere the very ground he walks on, or loathe him so much that they won’t allow even a paisa’s worth of praise for him to pass from the lips of their peers.
Anyone reading Modi’s new book of poems, though, and trying to square the figure and nature of the lyric speaker of A Journey with that of the political animal, might come to a different conclusion, one that’s simultaneously more alarming and more affecting than the old consensus.
It may be that Modi is polarising even unto himself, a man with an internal partition designed to separate ideals from tarnished reality, so that neither universe might vitiate the other. How else can we explain the fact that the speaker of the poems is a genuinely sympathetic figure, seen yearning—and often through beautiful images, metaphors, and cadences—for the brotherhood of man, the comity of faiths, communion with a personal god or an absent other. He is all the while conscious, like the poet Kabir, of life’s paradoxes. (“And though the soul is immortal,/ We seek immortality in this body,” he says in ‘Today.’)
This voice shares with that of the public figure the resolve always to be seen as single-minded, unyielding, indifferent to praise and opprobrium alike. But there is one crucial difference. Though the man in the poems, like Modi the politician, never admits to having any flaws or weaknesses, he does speak—repeatedly—of being profoundly lonely. In ‘At Midnight,’ he writes,