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Fri May 23, 2014

A Look At India's New Leader, Through The Lens Of Literature

Originally published on Sat May 24, 2014 2:13 am

On Monday, Narendra Modi will be sworn in as India's prime minister. His rise to power is a remarkable story. A former tea vendor who speaks poor English, Modi is a distinct outsider to India's political and cultural establishment. His election signals the extent to which India is shedding its old hierarchies and class barriers, becoming a more meritocratic society.

When I think of what just happened in Indian politics, I think about a book I first read some 24 years ago. That book was India: A Million Mutinies Now, by the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul traveled through India in the late '80s; he wrote before the economic reforms of the '90s, before the social transformations of the new millennium.

But Naipaul was prescient. In a series of incisive portraits, he captured the incipient hopes and ambitions of the Indian people. He wrote detailed character sketches of businessmen, stockbrokers, politicians, women breaking free from oppressive traditions. Naipaul described these people — ordinary people — finding a new voice and identity. He wrote that they were discovering "the idea of freedom."

In many ways, that idea — a sense of self-confidence, of individual self-expression — has found shape in Modi's election. Modi's success signals to millions of marginalized Indians that their aspirations are attainable.

It's good to remember, though, that the changes Naipaul captured weren't entirely benign. He also wrote of "rage" and violence, of disturbances and new social tensions. He wrote of resurgent religious and caste identities that accompanied the new confidence. He worried that the nation and its social fabric could be torn apart. India, he famously observed, was a nation of "a million little mutinies."

In much the same way, Modi's rise has two faces. Many are inspired by his victory, but many are also fearful of a new Hindu nationalism, and of worsening relations between India's Hindus and Muslims. Modi will forever be marked by the violent Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister. Many Indian Muslims are insecure about the prospect of a Modi government.

Revolutions are rarely simple affairs; mutinies, as Naipaul noted, are both emancipatory and oppressive. The question, going forward, is whether India under Modi can find the change — the revolution — it desperately needs, without the upheavals and disruptions that so often follow.

Akash Kapur is the author of India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On Monday, Narendra Modi will be sworn in as India's prime minister. Modi is a Hindu nationalist who was seen as an outsider to the country's political establishment. He won in a landslide. To put his election in context, we're turning to literature. Here's author Akash Kapur with a recommendation of a book he says captures India's political and emotional climate.

AKASH KAPUR: Something is happening in Indian politics: a shedding of barriers; a shift to a more upwardly mobile society. To understand it, I'm revisiting a book I first read decades ago. It's V.S. Naipaul's "India: A Million Mutinies Now." Naipaul traveled through India in the late '80s. He wrote before the economic reforms of the '90s, before the changes of the new millennium. Naipaul was prescient. He captured a sense of hope and ambition. He wrote portraits of businessmen, politicians, women breaking free from oppressive traditions, ordinary people.

Naipaul described them finding a new voice. He wrote that they were discovering the idea of freedom. Here's why I'm thinking about this book right now. That new sense of self-confidence Naipaul wrote about, that's what shaped the recent elections. It's what an outside like Modi to be voted to power. Modi's success signals to millions of Indians that their aspirations are attainable. He gives them license to dream.

But the changes Naipaul captured in his book weren't always benign. He also saw rage and violence, disturbances and new tensions. He wrote of resurgent religious and caste identities. He worried the nation could be torn apart. India, he wrote, was a nation of a million little mutinies.

Modi's success also has two faces. His victory might inspire, but a lot of people are worried about a new Hindu nationalism and about relations between Hindus and Muslims. Many won't forget that Modi was chief minister in the state of Gujarat in 2002, when some of India's worst religious riots took place.

Revolutions are never simple affairs. As Naipaul noted, they can both emancipate and oppress. They can inspire, but they also threaten. The question going forward is whether India under Modi can find the change, the revolution it desperately needs, without the upheavals and disruptions that so often follow.

CORNISH: The book is "India: A Million Mutinies Now" by V.S. Naipaul. It was recommended by Akash Kapur. His latest book is called "India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.