By: Akshay Pathak

(Akshay Pathak, having worked with the publishing industry for five years, is an independent consultant now)

An email invite landed in my inbox yesterday. A garishly designed and grammatically flawed invitation to hear the “honourable” and “enigmatic” ‘Narendra Modi ji’, who has been elected chief guest to the All India Federation of Master Printers’ (AIFMP) annual conference, “Romancing Print”, on March 2, 2013, in New Delhi. How fitting as we approach the eleventh anniversary of the Gujarat pogrom.

Many in the print and publishing world are outraged by this. I am sure many are equally eager to be blessed by a vision of the king himself, and partake of his “remarkable ability to transform dreams into reality”—as the brochure written by some sycophant, or most likely by his PR agency, informs us.

I belong to the former, the outraged set of people. Perhaps not a very large number, but surely a set of people loud enough to not let the “the supreme dream” that Modi says he has—“to regenerate and transform the state of Gujarat”—be touted around yet again. And this time, to the world of print and publishing. Some of us have already signed and sent a letter to the organizers denouncing this decision of theirs. A petition is being planned. In fact as I write this a welcome email hits my inbox where PrintWeek, their media sponsor has withdrawn from the event. The editor Ramu Ramanathan has since been receiving threats from members of the federation.

The event being titled “Romancing Print,” perhaps the organisers deemed it fit to invite the poster boy, the hero of the macho men of India, who, the brochure says, has the reputation of being “a hard taskmaster and strict disciplinarian and an embodiment of strength and compassion”. Since reputation is the word they chose to associate the “enigmatic” chief minister with, it would be fitting to identify other tags attached to that “reputation”. And, compassion, yes, it is a lovely word indeed—to be used for a man who, while he finds it easy to suck up to European Union officials, refuses to acknowledge even once, forget apologize, the carnage of 2002 where Muslims were brutally attacked, murdered and displaced on his watch. Did that also fit in with the dream of this supreme dreamer, whose vision, we are told, fosters “agricultural research, protection of the environment, infrastructure as the lifeline of industry and global investments”? The fact that the development story of Gujarat is a selective promotional exercise churned out by the Modi government and the corporate houses that benefit from it, is not news anymore.

A year ago, at roughly around the same time, I received a phone call from someone representing the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. In my capacity as the Director of German Book Office, New Delhi, then, I was invited to a “core meeting” to discuss publishing. The AMC was planning to host a book fair, and wanted to discuss ideas and “learn from international experience”. Curious to know more about the proposed fair, and also because my job demanded it, I attended the meeting. It was held at the Gujarat Bhavan in New Delhi, and I saw some men from among the publishing circuit of Delhi sitting in a room stinking of damp sofas and perhaps some other unidentifiable stench.

The meeting began with a representative from the National Book Trust, New Delhi, introducing the new fair that they would be organizing in Ahmedabad in collaboration with the municipal corporation. We were shown grand 3D plans of a makeshift book fair tent on the banks of the River Sabarmati. There was an uneasiness in the room. Not because of the stench, I can say for certain. Surprisingly, in all this time, the “M” word was not mentioned once. The presentation was made by Powerpoint-savvy bureaucrats, the rare breed that a lot of urban yuppies imagine to be their ideal “public servants”.

At this time, I had already quit my job at the GBO, and was serving my notice period, and I was quite disillusioned with the world of publishing (something I have written about previously. But, for once, I was almost proud of the old men of publishing, men of my grandfathers’ age, who habitually grope young women after they have raided the bar sufficiently at book fairs and festivals. These men—for that room only had men—categorically asked if the proposed book fair had anything to do with the Gujarat Government (read “Shri Narendra Modi ji”). Never mind that the NBT and the AMC perhaps forgot that publishing is also made up of women, many women in fact. Or perhaps this was a demonstration of the true face of the vision and mission of the supreme dreamer, being emulated by his orderlies. I was glad that the “M” word was brought up by the publishers before I could do it. The officials, after quickly exchanging glances, insisted that it was the municipal corporation’s event. One still could not dare to convince people to associate with anything to do with Modi. After much cross-questioning, the officials admitted to wanting to create a “Jaipur-like event.” Here, DSC Jaipur Literature Festival can be proud yet again. The “greatest literary show on earth” has the supreme dreamer taken in by it too. Now that Kapil Sibal has stopped inflicting poetry on us (or has he?) in Jaipur, they have a candidate for next year’s list of VVIP guests. It can also assure them of enough scandal.

My engagement with the AMC-NBT event ended then and there. The first “Ahmedabad National Book Fair” went ahead, though not in a Jaipur-like manner, nor with similar results, I am told. It was a seven-day affair in an air-conditioned canopy on the banks of the Sabarmati. All over the venue, larger-than-life backdrops of the supreme dreamer himself (in one of the stalls alongside those of Steve Jobs) greeted visitors, something that wouldn’t surprise anyone any more. They dwarfed guests and invitees who were invited on stage, as well as the audience that sat to hear them speak. Some of notable Gujarati writers attended, and all the big Gujarati publishers and booksellers reported brisk sales. A handful of booksellers from neighbouring Rajasthan and Maharashtra, and a few from New Delhi too, had taken stalls. An Indian Express article dated May 2, 2012 describes all this and quotes Modi who inaugurated the book fair saying, “When we say German or Yahudi (Jews), we conjure up specific images of them but when it comes to Gujaratis, the image that comes to mind is people with taraju ya vyapaar (weighing scale or business). But the arrival of this fair will change this image.” A large statue of Vivekananda was also to be seen the moment one entered the fair. It was earlier advertised that the event would be opened by none other than Sri Asaram Bapu, clearly the most literary of all figures we have in India today. The PR companies must have realized the danger of that in time for this plan to be abandoned.

Narendra Modi, many say, has visions of taking this country “ahead”, something the organisers—and a section of the print and publishing industry too—seem to endorse. What do we read into this? The comically titled conference, which by its own admission derives inspiration from Bollywood, with sessions titled Jab Tak Hai ‘CARE’, promises to be a drab event. But the organisers, AIFMP and PRESSIdeas, urge us to be “inspired to do better business in our chosen field of printing.”

Does this mean that the print and publishing worlds, having first succumbed to the corporate world’s sin-bins—the many lit-fests and think-fests—are also now succumbing to the designs of a man whose political biography should have to be printed in blood?