The South Asia Channel

From Chaiwallah to Chief Minister: Modi’s eventful journey

Narendra Modi, the man now leading the world's largest democracy enjoys widespread mass appeal. One of the many reasons behind this appeal is Modi's ability to connect with the average Indian voter, citing his own small town roots. How did a humble tea seller from a small town in Gujarat go on to become the state's chief minister, in a country dominated by dynasty politics? It is a fascinating story, almost worthy of a Bollywood potboiler.

 

Born on September 17, 1950 to Damodardas Modi, a tea shop owner, and his wife, Heeraben, Modi was the third of six children. His family belonged to the low caste Ghanchi community in the small town of Vadanagar in Gujarat. In his early years, Modi assisted his father in selling tea at the local railway station.

 

There exist a few colorful accounts of Modi's childhood. His personal website paints a glowing picture, describing Modi as a diligent and resourceful student, balancing studies with myriad responsibilities at home. The narrative highlights his volunteer work for flood victims, unfulfilled dream to serve in the Indian army, and early tendencies towards renunciation and spiritualism. Some sources report Modi's teacher describing him as an average student, with a keen interest in debates and theater.

 

Bearing striking similarities to the narrative on Modi's website, a comic published by Gujarat based Rannade Prakashan and Blue Snail Animation, lays out a glossy compilation of stories on Modi's childhood. Titled "Bal Narendra" (child Narendra), the comic describes how a young Modi frees a trapped bird, brings home (and subsequently releases) a young crocodile, and jumps into a lake to save a drowning friend, amongst other spectacular feats. While a highly enjoyable read, the factual accuracy of the source is debatable as no author is named. It is also not clear whether this comic was commissioned; however, the publisher has reportedly said that "the authenticity seal has come from the office of the Chief Minister."

 

Modi admits to being influenced at an early age by the spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda, credited with bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late nineteenth century. The newly revamped Indian Prime Minister's Office website includes a "Know Your Prime Minister" section, which says that a 17-year-old Modi left home to wander across the country for two years, and subsequently joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right wing Hindu nationalist organization, a "changed man." Although the website details Modi's formative years, it omits a significant event in Modi's life.

 

In an unusual turn of events, Modi recently admitted to having a wife while filing an election nomination, after having left the field for spouse blank in four assembly polls since 2001. Sombhai Modi, his elder brother, subsequently issued a statement, claiming that the marriage was forced on Modi in his teens, was never consummated, and that Modi walked out on the marriage soon after it was solemnized. Jashodaben, Modi's wife, a retired school teacher, has been living with her brothers in a village in Gujarat since Modi walked out on the marriage more than four decades ago. In a rare interview to the Indian Express, Jashodaben says that Modi parted with her on good terms, she understands "why he has to lie" about his marital status, and she does not want to remarry after her first experience.

 

Modi's reason for not disclosing his marital status might lie in his effort to preserve his carefully cultivated bachelor image and to maintain ties with the RSS, which requires a vow of celibacy from its pracharaks (volunteers). His early years as an RSS volunteer, as Modi recalled to his authorized biographer, involved making tea and breakfast for the pracharaks in the morning, "after which I had to clean up the entire building, consisting of eight or nine rooms. I swept and mopped the whole place ... This was my routine for at least a year, and this was the time when I met many people." From this ordinary start, Modi gradually started taking more responsibilities, and his organizational skills and efficiency made him rise rapidly through RSS ranks. According to Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of one of Modi's biographies, Modi was adept at picking his mentors and using them to further his career at the RSS. Modi's actual political career began when he started working as the general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat from 1987, 15 years after first joining the RSS. Modi built a strong network across the state that would later help him take control of the party's reins.

 

The early 90s witnessed the rise of the BJP in India's political scene, on the back of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The movement aimed to build a temple at the site of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, claiming that it was Hindu God Rama's birthplace and had originally housed a temple. Modi successfully facilitated the first stretch of then BJP President L.K. Advani's infamous cross-country Rath Yatra (chariot procession) to Ayodhya that some argue led to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 by hard-line Hindu activists. The demolition prompted nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots that resulted in the death of more than 1,000 people. Modi also organized another successful Rath Yatra for senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi in 1991, further consolidating his position and proximity to the senior party leadership. Thereafter, Modi was shifted to Delhi to work with the BJP as National Secretary in 1995, monitoring the party's activities in the states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. In 2001, Modi was offered the chief ministership of Gujarat by then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The prime minister's website describes this as the phone call that "opened a new chapter in Modi's life," without offering much context.

 

Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of the Caravan magazine, describes a carefully orchestrated narrative of subtle political maneuvering of Modi's accession to the coveted post of Gujarat chief minister. The Gujarat BJP political landscape had three power centers in the early 90s: senior leaders Keshubhai Patel, Shankar Singh Vaghela, and (the relatively junior) Modi. Modi sided with Patel, and is alleged to have widened the rift between Patel and Vaghela, who threatened to bring the government down unless he was made chief minister.

 

Vaghela later broke off from the BJP with a band of ministers, and with Congress' support formed a new government in Gujarat. According to Jose, Modi took advantage of this defection to assert that he had been right all along in opposing Vaghela, thus strengthening his credentials further within the party. In 1998, BJP came to power in Gujarat again, with Patel at the helm. Jose asserts that Modi quietly lobbied against former ally Patel, building on the fact that the BJP lost a series of local body elections and two by-elections in late 2001.

 

A news article notes that at least 20 top BJP politicians and ministers from Gujarat were summoned to New Delhi in 2001, ostensibly to seek their views on Patel's successor. At that point, the central BJP leadership's primary concern was to win the assembly election due in 18 months. Modi's pro-Hindutva stance, comfort with media, and ability to rouse RSS affiliate cadres worked in his favor. The article goes on to describe that most of the ministers were not comfortable with Modi, because of his perceived "arrogance" and "strong likes and dislikes" but agreed that there was no alternative.

 

Modi didn't disappoint the central leadership and went on to retain the state chief minister's post for twelve consecutive years. Months after he first became chief minister, massive Hindu Muslim riots broke out in Gujarat in 2002 after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire under mysterious circumstances. The riots resulted in the death of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. While Indian courts have cleared Modi of direct or indirect involvement in the communal riots, the incident still causes many to question his secular credentials. In the last decade of governing Gujarat, Modi acquired a reputation for decisiveness, integrity, and ruthless efficiency. Subsequently, Modi went on to craft a brilliant campaign and lead the BJP to its most spectacular electoral victory in the 2014 Indian national elections.



It seems this "crisis of leadership" has again propelled Modi's career, this time to the highest post in the country. It takes a kind of resilience, grit, and ambition to change one's life that drastically in the Indian political milieu, unaided by riches, connections, or dynasty. At this moment, all of India is hoping that the new prime minister alters the country's destiny for the better, almost as dramatically as he altered his own.

 

 

 

Ritika Katyal is pursuing a Master in Public Affairs at Princeton University. She can be contacted at ritika@princeton.edu

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