From pracharak to PM: The making of Narendra Modi

Tracing the evolution of a man who is set to give a new direction to the India story


Ajay Singh | June 7, 2014

Narendra Modi`s anti-status quo approach earned him many enemies in Haryana. But Modi remained unfazed and undaunted by dissidents irrespective of their seniority and proximity to top leaders
Narendra Modi`s anti-status quo approach earned him many enemies in Haryana. But Modi remained unfazed and undaunted by dissidents irrespective of their seniority and proximity to top leaders

Clinical psychology may have many explanations for an individual’s emotional outbursts. When prime minister-designate Narendra Modi broke into sobs in parliament’s central hall on May 19, his moment of emotional catharsis was hardly unusual. He displayed a similar conduct after his victory in 2007 Gujarat assembly elections.

“How can I be greater than the party which is like my mother?” he declared with tears in his eyes that revealed a softer side of his persona rarely seen in public. What makes Modi, who prides himself in being projected as a strongman of India, weep? For a man who withstood demonisation, such a display of human vulnerability genuinely evokes curiosity.

So, who is Modi? It will be very difficult to understand Modi without inquiring into the values of the Sangh Parivar, which shaped his formative years. Till his middle age, Modi imbibed values and philosophy that defines the nation as a corporate entity and undermines an individual’s role. Those well versed with the functioning of the RSS can testify that there is nothing wrong if a few tears are shed to wash off bitterness in a gathering. In his heyday as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh broke down uncontrollably while telling LK Advani about the humiliation meted out to him by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. There are many instances when KN Govindacharya cried on being inquired about his conduct by his seniors in the RSS. In this context, Modi’s act conforms to a pattern which is not unusual in collective behaviour of the Sangh Parivar.

But that does not explain all. Modi’s display of human vulnerability always comes from the position of strength. Remember the visual when he was pushed around in the wake of Haren Pandya’s assassination? He was calm but firm. He did not betray his unease when the CBI interrogated him for over nine hours in Gandhinagar in connection with the Gulbarg Society massacre – one of the key cases relating to the 2002 riots.

More recently, he did not show signs of weakness when LK Advani tried to scuttle his elevation to the BJP’s political centre-stage. But he did display all humility once the BJP patriarch conceded primacy to him. These are some of the episodes indicative of the fact that Modi’s emotional outpouring is also a political act intended to consolidate his gains and cement his position.

How has he reached this position? How a leader of middling rank few would bother to speak to when he would be loitering at the BJP headquarters has emerged as the biggest leader the country has seen since Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi? Here is an attempt to trace Modi’s evolution from an RSS pracharak (propagandist) to the ultimate master practitioner of statecraft who is about to redefine the very idea of India.

My first impression of Modi goes back to 1995. Lean, receding hairline, unaccompanied, he was walking towards the parliament annexe, where the BJP’s national executive was meeting. As a reporter assigned to cover the BJP affairs, I introduced myself, had a brief chat with him and found him warm in response. But he refused to be drawn into any conversation related to Gujarat. As organising secretary of the state unit, he had helped the party come to power in this crucial state, but soon a bitter factional war had ensued, with his close friend Shankarsinh Vaghela in the rebellion mode. The result was that he was moved out of Gujarat. His exile was bargained for a short-lived truce effected by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. However, Vaghela subsequently led his breakaway faction to form his own party – and government.

Meanwhile, Modi’s shadow from his home state was banned by state leaders with active endorsement from the party’s central leadership. The pracharak in Modi took this decision in his stride, confined himself to Lutyens’ Delhi, and dedicated himself to the works assigned. He was given the charge of the party units in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. In Haryana, he developed a good rapport with the party’s regional ally, Bansi Lal, but in Himachal he rocked the boat by upsetting old equations. Shanta Kumar, an old guard and close friend of Vajpayee, was sidelined to make way for younger leaders like Prem Kumar Dhumal. Shanta Kumar never forgot and forgave Modi for his marginalisation in Himachal politics.

Modi’s anti-status quo approach earned him many enemies in Haryana. Satyapal Jain, an advocate from Chandigarh who was close to Advani, turned against Modi’s politics and emerged as one of his bitter critics. But Modi remained unfazed and undaunted by dissidents, irrespective of their seniority and proximity to top leaders. If he ever felt threatened by them, he would never let his emotions betray him.

In time, he was elevated as general secretary and assigned the task of briefing the media on regular basis as a spokesperson. Conscious of his limitations, Modi developed a personal rapport with some Delhi-based journalists and sought their feedback and suggestions for improving his performance. His brother suggested he take a relaxed posture as he looked stiff during his media briefings.

He soon became comfortable with the TV camera and often made mincemeat of his Congress counterparts like Margret Alva on the small screen. Once the NDA assumed power, Modi’s profile became bigger.

But Modi was not at home in Lutyens’ Delhi; his heart still longed for his home state. Still, he was bound by the party’s discipline which restricted him to Haryana, Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh. A rarely known side of Modi is his intense spiritual training. In 1998, when he was still a pracharak, Modi confided to one of his acquaintances that it was his dream to do a parikrama of the Narmada river: this entails walking 2,600 km, and – as the tradition has it – surviving only on alms. “This is a crazy idea. Why do you want to do it?” his friend asked, rather alarmed. “It is a deep spiritual exercise which crushes your ego,” he responded.

Instead, he soon embarked on a journey of ruthless electoral politics by giving up his status as a pracharak. And he fought for every inch of his place in politics. Those who think that Modi’s journey was facilitated by a godfather would do well to recount an incident which was indicative of his loneliness in Delhi.

In the 2001 earthquake that rocked Kutch and parts of Saurashtra, Modi’s home in Vadnagar, where his mother lives, was also destroyed. In Delhi, he was the first to reach out to the then home minister Advani after the Republic Day celebrations and inform him about the devastation that had befallen Gujarat. Advani was all set for an emergency visit of Gujarat as he represented the state. Modi too wanted to accompany him but he was not offered a place on the BSF plane. He was, however, accommodated in the plane at last when a slot opened up. This showed that Modi’s acceptability within the BJP’s ruling elite in Delhi was begrudging.

Despite this ordeal, Modi was not easily given to emotional swings. On his part, he sought to build good ties with Vajpayee. It was to the then prime minister that he turned for releasing a collection of his poems penned in Gujarati. Perhaps he saw poetry as an effective medium to strike a chord with Vajpayee, who too wrote poetry. While power equations in Delhi were changing fast, dissidence in Gujarat reached its culmination with Keshubhai Patel losing the trust of Vajpayee and Advani. Modi was named the successor in late September 2001. Contrary to the perception, he was chosen as the chief minister at the instance of Vajpayee with grudging approval from Advani. Of course, the second generation leaders like Pramod Mahajan, M Venkaiah Naidu and Arun Jaitley played key roles in swinging the decision in his favour.

The high drama that preceded Modi’s coronation as chief minister brought out a crucial facet of his life. He disappeared for a fortnight from the media’s radar and emerged only when his swearing-in was to take place. This showed that he would like to set his own terms of engagement with people. This habit continues till date as he gives and denies access to his closest people at the time of his choosing.

That he became a seasoned practitioner of realpolitik was evident soon after the post-Godhra carnage, when Vajpayee dispatched Arun Jaitley to Gandhinagar with a specific brief to procure Modi’s resignation before the BJP’s national executive at Goa in 2002. Advani also concurred with the idea and gave the go-ahead. However, Jaitley, whose proximity to Modi goes back to his days in wilderness in Delhi, did not act on dictated lines. He mobilised young turks within the party – Pramod Mahajan, M Venkaiah Naiu and others – to put up resistance.

A well-orchestrated move was planned to counter Vajpayee’s decision by enacting the drama of resignation in the inaugural session. Playing to the script, Modi offered to resign in the middle of the executive, which immediately evoked popular sympathy in his favour. Vajpayee, forced to be on back-foot, declined to accept the resignation. Advani, meanwhile, remained silent, giving the impression of colluding with the young turks. Modi was saved to fight another day.

He genuinely relishes his image of a street-fighter. This was evident during the terrorist attack on the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar – barely a few hundred metres from the CM’s residence – in September 2002. As soon as the NSG commandos cordoned off the area and launched an operation to neutralise terrorists, he stood there for hours on end to understand and supervise details of the operation. “They were highly motivated youth,” he said of the attackers.

When terrorists struck at several places in Ahmedabad in July 2008, he brushed aside police officers’ advice and rushed to all the places. “This is a battle in which terrorists may have scored this time but we will pin them down,” he assured people of the state, who trusted his words and maintained peace.

An interesting anecdote here is worth recounting. Prime minister Manmohan Singh, along with Sonia Gandhi and home minister Shivraj Patil, was to visit the sites of terrorist attacks. When Modi was informed about the PM’s visit, his office conveyed to the PMO in unambiguous terms that he would accompany the PM only if they travel in the same car. As a result, Manmohan Singh and Modi travelled in the same car while Sonia accompanied by Patil tailed the PM’s cavalcade. Similarly, his image of a fearless leader was once again on display when he visited the sites of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in the midst of the operation, ignoring all warnings by security agencies.

In fact, Modi’s carefully cultivated image of machismo is bolstered by his unique oratory which has all elements of demagoguery. In the run-up to the 2002 assembly elections during his controversial Gaurav Yatras (‘pride rallies’) through every district headquarters, he polarised people by inventing idioms and discourse that his rivals could not match. Modi was modelling his oratory on powerful religious discourses that sway popular opinion. In his formative years as a pracharak, Modi had been quite impressed by the Ramayana narrations of Morari Bapu, a hugely popular kathakar. As a pracharak, and then as a party functionary, he did not have to address crowds, but his oratorical and dramatic skills had been honed from childhood to the spokesperson days, and they came handy just in time. Modi’s first victory in December 2002 could be largely credited to his fiery speeches with constant reminders to the Godhra tragedy and the aftermath. It was during this campaign that he revealed his ambitions: he was no longer content being the chief minister of a state, and his speeches targeted not the Gujarat Congress leaders but Sonia Gandhi and Pervez Musharraf.
With a popular verdict under his belt, his allegedly authoritarian ways became all the more so, and large groups of party MLAs made several attempts, led by two former CMs and helped by some industrial houses, to persuade the central leadership for a change of guard. But his stature was becoming too big for the central leadership, and what could not be done in Goa before assembly polls was all the more difficult to achieve after a popular verdict.

This period, a couple of years from February 2002, set the template for the Modi way of acquiring, managing and enlarging power. Key elements were reaching out to people, communicating with them in their language, and using this direct power base to cock a snook at hierachised power bearers.

Yet, Modi might have outlived his utility in 2007 had it not been for the UPA government’s crude attempt to implicate him in various cases – relating to riots or fake encounters – by cooking up evidence. This was followed by another attempt to create a revolt in the state bureaucracy by picking on disgruntled officers not known for their integrity. Against this backdrop, he turned the 2007 assembly elections into a referendum on the encounter killing of Syed Sohrabuddin, a person with criminal antecedents.

Once again Modi won hands down. This highlighted yet another unique Modi characteristic: turning personal criticism into criticism of all who believed in him, and thus deriving advantage out of difficult situations. This was to come handy later when the UPA tried every trick in the book – and some outside it – to corner him, even as the judiciary took up the riot-related cases, focusing on his role.

However, his first full term, 2002-07, was also marked by something that makes him stand apart from all demagogue figures. Instead of relying on the sole plank of berating ‘pseudo-secularism’, he started to reinvent himself and for this he found a most non-controversial, non-sectarian, all-inclusive plank of development. If good governance was to emerge as a vote-catching buzzword, Modi was far ahead of the curve in realising its importance, and building his persona as a ‘vikas purush’. He consolidated his gains in the state with well-branded Vibrant Gujarat meets where top tycoons vied with each other in lavish praise of the chief minister. Though it was Sonia Gandhi’s ill-advised ‘maut ka saudagar’ comment with reference to Sohrabuddin that conclusively turned the tables, Modi would have sailed through on the development plank alone.

In the second term, with the whole world watching him after visa troubles with the US and the UK, he never lowered his guard as stakes were too high. This was in sharp contrast to his usual effusive self, fond of good vegetarian food and random gossip.

A keen observer of his politics once narrated an event which is quite instructive in decoding Modi. The RSS-VHP combine was upset with Modi after his 2002 victory as there were indications that his regime was ignoring senior functionaries and their entreaties in the government. Much firework was expected in a meeting of RSS delegates at Surat where Modi was also expected to come. He came, sat with the delegates and as the session began, a delegate asked how he felt when he saw the burnt bodies at the Godhra railway station.

A lesser political leader would have painted himself in the corner, but not Modi. He glanced at the gathering for a while, and then broke into uncontrollable sobs. In no time, the delegates, who wanted to pose uncomfortable questions to Modi, joined in and wept.

Modi’s understanding of the collective psyche of society and his own organisation is phenomenal. It was this understanding that was at work when he ignored the resistance from the top BJP leadership, including Advani, last year and assumed the role of the chief campaigner and ultimately the prime ministerial candidate. He has fought for every inch of his place in Lutyens’ Delhi where the elite were disdainful of an upstart like him. On May 19, when Modi conquered Delhi, his expression of an emotional side induced a collective catharsis in the audience which was perfectly in tune with the values he imbibed and consolidated his position as the most powerful person in the history of saffron brotherhood.




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