Book Review | Stoically observing the faults and follies of India’s first ‘Teflon PM’

The Asian Age.  | Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

The challenge that Prabhakar faces is how to shame a government for its forgivable & unforgivable lapses because of its propaganda din.

Cover photo 'The Crooked Timber of New India: Essays on a Republic in Crisis' by Parakala Prabhakar. (Photo by arrangement)

Though no editor or columnist dare say it, it is a fact that Mr Narendra Modi is India’s first Teflon Prime Minister. There have been Teflon political leaders in other countries including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in the United States and Tony Blair in Great Britain. These are leaders who escaped being tainted by their shortcomings and follies. Mr Modi has joined the select Teflon band of leaders. So, criticising him and his government can be a frustrating experience because you know beforehand that it has no impact, and that people are not willing to accept facts. So, Parakala Prabhakar, who has worked his way through as aide and adviser, faces a disheartening task of proving the follies of the Modi government. He cannot resort to rhetorical attack because that would be so much of wasted verbiage. So, he has fallen back on the strategy of stating simple facts of the Modi government’s umpteen misdeeds and nothing more. And to use the tactic of peroration only sparingly. He is also painfully aware that people are not willing to accept the facts which Mr Modi and his government to be incompetent, but he feels that it is his moral duty to state them anyway. It is this stoic persistence in telling the truth that enhances the value of the book. And the stoicism is also reflected in the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s germane phrase, “the crooked timber of humanity” in the title of the book. The implicit assumption of the phrase is that human behaviour and affairs cannot be expected to follow the simple moralistic path of right and wrong. Prabhakar indicates this when he quotes Muscovite Nina Poblezova’s observation of the Stalinist phenomenon: “He stands in the balcony and he lies. Everyone claps but everyone knows he lies, and he knows we know. But he continues spewing lies, and he’s happy that everyone is applauding him.” Then Prabhakar ends on the optimistic cautionary note: “We are not very far from the point in our national life when this will be our reality. But I want to be positive, too. So I hope that we, as a nation, will change direction sometime soon.”

Most of the essays in this collections are either those written for the media or from his podcast “Midweek Matters” through 2021 and 2022. Prabhakar chooses to employ facts to counter the claims of the Modi government. The longest section in the book, “A Pandemic Log Book 2021” is the clearest example where Prabhakar painstakingly states facts and figures and shows the moral culpability of the Modi government and how it just glosses over its failures. This section is a reminder of how at every step populist, propagandist gestures sought to cover up the fumble of the policymakers without any clear policy or strategy ready at hand. Yet, Prime Minister Modi had no hesitation to indulge in self-congratulatory talk.

The challenge that Prabhakar faces is how to shame a government for its forgivable and unforgivable lapses because of its self-hypnotised propaganda din. And he also realises that if the people are not willing to get angry with the government for its failures, it becomes doubly difficult to argue with people based on facts. So, he has to maintain his patience and still persist with the moral task of telling the people the truth whether they are willing to accept or not. And he is aware of this imperviousness of the people to accept anything critical of Mr Modi, and facts be damned. Prabhakar unveils the truth of people’s perception of what Mr Modi did to the Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Writing of his 2012 3,000-km Gujarat trek before the state Assembly elections, the last third and the last that Mr Modi fought as the chief minister of the state, he writes: “I kept probing, and after everything was peeled off from the mythical ‘Gujarat model’, their core reason emerged: ‘Isne un logon ko sabak sikha diya’ they said. ‘This government taught “those people” a lesson.’ What we are seeing in much of India today — in northern and central India, in Assam and parts of Karnataka — is that aspect of the Gujarat model.” Prabhakar states this stark truth in a matter of fact tone and that really clinches the argument.

The Crooked Timber of New India: Essays on a Republic in Crisis

By Parakala Prabhakar

Speaking Tiger

pp. 291, Rs.499