We have been seeing and hearing much more of Narendra Modi these days, as he pops up on successive television channels, allowing the media greater access than he has so far in his political career, especially after 2002. Whether being grilled (or lightly toasted) in a television studio or his official residence, the viewer sees a dramatically different side of the man, not the chest-thumping oratory of the campaign trail, but how he answers the kind of questions put to an individual who is poised to be the next Prime Minister of India, if the polls have got it right. His answers may be politically correct, but what is truly compelling is the references to himself in the third person. In many interviews and public speeches, his responses or statements are peppered with “Modi will” and “Modi has said” or “Modi wants...” It sounds quite discordant—Indian politicians generally avoid such references because it is so closely associated with the royal ‘we’ as in “We are not amused”.
Rahul Gandhi uses it occasionally and so does Lalu Prasad Yadav, but with Modi it almost seems like second nature. The question is whether it reveals something about the man beyond his Gujarat models and sketchy personal history. In psychological terms, the act of referring to oneself in the third person is called illeism, from the Latin ille meaning ‘he’. In psychology, the person using such a linguistic device or style is either seen as being egoistic and indulging in involuntary self-promotion, or, conversely, an attempt to project humility. Royals and social-status-seekers often use it to separate themselves from the hoi polloi, but, generally, it comes associated with inflated ego. The best-known examples would be Salvador Dali (“Dali is immortal”) and Agatha Christie’s poncy detective, Hercule Poirot. In politics, Charles de Gaulle was known to use illeism fairly frequently, but the most contemporary example would be former American presidential hopeful, Bob Dole, who used it so often that he became a figure of ridicule.
Modi is not in any danger of meeting that fate, but it has raised intriguing questions about his character and why he likes to refer to himself in such an unusual fashion. In real-life usage, illeism can reflect a number of different stylistic intentions, one being to project an air of objective impartiality, which includes justification of actions. “If found guilty, Modi should be hanged in a public square”,