In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, while there was an unmistakable outrage against the Congress-led UPA government, the BJP led by Narendra Modi was destined to form the new government at the Centre. This election was inarguably going to be significant and despite the chaos and restrictions on shooting, acclaimed photographer Raghu Rai was compelled to return to shooting political portraits after 25 years. “I am used to walking into people’s homes on a friendly basis and shooting in comfort, and at my age it took courage to shoot amidst the chaos,” he admits.
In over 50 years as a photojournalist, Rai’s lens has ensued a portrait each of former prime ministers — the most well known being his portraits of Indira Gandhi. “Indira Gandhi exuded power,” he recounts. He believes that while shooting portraits, if you’re not close enough to the subject, it’s not good enough. The kind of access that photographers had during the 70s and 80s is perhaps incredible today. During Gandhi’s time, photojournalists could get as close as a few feet, shoot inside Cabinet meetings and even interact with her. However, today due to threat perceptions that loom at large, a distance of over 50 metres separates photographer from his subjects while shooting major political events. An up close view through a telephoto lens is just as good as it gets. “But, it can never be the same,” Rai rues.
In January this year, Rai first shot at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting at New Delhi’s Talkatora Gardens. “The air was thick with sycophancy and at the end of the five hours that I shot, the air was static,” says Rai. The next day when he sat at his computer to edit images from the previous day, he was deeply pained to see Manmohan Singh — a lone, deserted man with the same expression transfixed on his face. There was a hint of a smile on Singh’s face when he was being garlanded along with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
When Narasimha Rao was the prime minister, Rai had captured an image of Singh, the then finance minister, in the shadow of two large portraits of late Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. In stark contrast to the able leader he saw in Singh back then, Rai saw a man living a nightmare. “It was shocking to see the same man becoming so irrelevant despite being the prime minister. His silence was deathly,” Rai says.
He then went on to shoot at the BJP’s national council meeting at Ram Lila Maidan, where Narendra Modi addressed delegates from across the country. Rai describes the atmosphere at this meeting as tense. “But once Modi took to stage, he energised the crowds,” he says.
In his latest book, The Tale of Two: An Incoming and and Outgoing Prime Minister, Rai uses these stills to captures the pre-election dichotomy that India witnessed. The images are complimented with Rai’s commentaries on the two leaders. “I was never a Modi fan but today, am willing to start with him all over again. He spoke in Parliament without contradictions or criticising anyone. We had a good man leading our country, but he was good for nothing. Perhaps, we need a strong leader. Lets wait and watch,” says Rai.
At 71, Rai admits that it is a challenge to suspend one’s preconceptions, but he stresses on the importance of witnessing events with a childlike innocence. “Vulnerability is the most creative expression but there is a need to control our responses to capture the truth of the moment,” he says.