Writing a book on a controversial politician can be hazardous enough. Writing it in such a way that it appeals to readers that share a language but who come from different cultural backgrounds presents added challenges.
My very first appointment with India’s prime minister was a case in point. In the waiting room I met an astrologer who was also there to see Narendra Modi. He told me that Modi would be in power until 2032 with just a short break in opposition. Modi later confirmed to me that he did listen to those who claimed to be able to foretell his future and that he’d been told almost fifteen years ago that he’d be prime minister one day.
I remember from my days working for Tony Blair as a media adviser the hullabaloo when it was claimed that he and his wife were friends with a so-called new age guru. She was nothing of the kind, but that didn’t stop the press using the story to try to ridicule the Blairs. And yet in India, so my Indian friends told me, nobody would be shocked or surprised that their PM met astrologers.
And yet when in one of my first interviews on the book, I described Mr Modi as ‘a cult figure’, some of his supporters accused me of being disrespectful. I had meant nothing of the kind. I wasn’t referring to cults that might be considered weird or even sinister. I was simply using the phrase in a way that, to British ears at least, meant that he attracted a large number of devoted followers.
In The Modi Effect I try to explain that some familiar-sounding words mean different things in India than they do in the west. To us ‘secular’ is the opposite of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. In India it signifies an inclusive approach to all religions, often including special help for religious minorities. ‘Communalism’ has nothing to do with something shared, as in ‘communal living’, but rather owing allegiance to one’s own community, caste or faith.
It works the other way too. Much was made of the fact that Narendra Modi was the first person from a poor and underprivileged background to become prime minister of India. He is an OBC and proud of it. It stands for ‘Other Backward Classes’. The word ‘backward’ has such negative connotations in Britain that no politician would want to be associated with it.
Part of the fun of writing The Modi Effect came from exploring the complex differences in our cultures, our politics and indeed our use of English. This week I am in India publicising the book. I’ve no doubt it will be fun as the Indian media is every bit as lively as ours, but I had better watch my language.
The Modi Effect is out now from Hodder & Stoughton: You can buy it here
Follow Lance on twitter: @mrlanceprice