You would expect a Narendra Modi biography to answer a few conundrums about a man seen as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate in the next general election.

Will the “Modi magic" that worked in Gujarat work in the rest of India? Is the Modi phenomenon an outcome of an already communalized polity in Gujarat, or did he bring about an extreme level of communalization through his divisive politics? What is the actual significance of the Gujarat 2002 riots for his career—is it the singular event that has catapulted him to the national stage, or will it hold him back from succeeding at the ‘next level’?

In his unauthorized biography, Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, veteran journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay doesn’t try to answer these vexing questions so much as saunter about the narrative territories surrounding the politician—unearthing a significant fact here and adding new context to it, lopping off a myth there and the falsehood sustaining it, adding a fresh anecdote to a known truth, a personal experience to a tired truism—and thus knit together a finely detailed and sympathetic portrait that does much more than reconcile the polar characterizations of the man. By making you conscious of your own assumptions about him, it opens your mind to the polarities opposed to your own.

Mukhopadhyay’s narrative begins with Modi’s childhood in Vadnagar, in Gujarat’s Mehsana district. It traces his political evolution from his early engagement, even as a child, with the Maha Gujarat Janata Parishad, through the years of his adolescence and youth as a Rastriya Swayamsevak Ssangh (RSS) member, his unacknowledged marriage, his adventures as an underground activist during the Emergency, his political coming of age via his involvement in the BJP’s Ekta Yatra in 1992, his adroit handling of intra-party shenanigans that fetched him the Gujarat chief minister’s chair in late 2001, the riots in 2002 under his watch as chief minister, and finally, to his attempted reincarnation, post-2002, as a proponent of strong economic governance.

Along the way, Mukhopadhyay adds plenty of history, context, and political analysis to the anecdotes, interviews and quotes—his own, as well as those culled from other write-ups on Modi.

Some of his stories about the young Modi are revealing. Once, for instance, when Modi was a school kid, his teacher asked him to get his homework corrected by the class monitor. But the young Modi refuses to show his assignment to his classmate, insisting—at risk of being punished—that he will have it checked only by the teacher. The teacher’s logic was that Modi, being an average student, would lose nothing in having his assignment checked by a superior student. But the future politician wasn’t buying it—he’ll be damned if he was going to have his work judged by a peer. Many would see in this episode an early portent of the trajectory of his relationship with the RSS—the organization that first gifted him with a political opening, only to find itself brushed aside when it sought to hoist its internal hierarchy on the Gujarat chief minister.

Another interesting episode pertains to Modi’s early taste for authoritarianism. According to his eldest brother, Somabhai, Modi wanted to be in the RSS from his childhood because “he was always greatly impressed by the fact that only one person gave all the orders in the shakha and everyone followed the command." At that time, Modi was barely 11 or 12 years old, but “early influences became permanent characteristics of Modi," writes Mukhopadhyay.

Mukhopadhyay, who devotes an entire chapter to the “Modi kurta", also discovers that Modi’s sartorial vanities go back to his childhood. Uncle Jayantibhai remembers that even in primary school, Modi “liked to dress properly and took care of his clothes—did not allow them to get frayed and ruffled like other children. He spent a lot of time in grooming." In his later years in the RSS, an organization known to take pride in its barebones approach to physical appearance, Modi’s self-indulgent fastidiousness in matters of attire was a cause of not a little discomfort.

Today, of course, Modi’s sense of refinement goes beyond clothing—he sports Bvlgari glasses, wields a Mont Blanc pen, and wears linen kurtas stitched at Jade Blue. Incidentally, when Mukhopadhyay meets Modi’s tailor in Ahmedabad, he makes it a point to ascertain the politician’s exact chest size, and goes so far as to confirm that it is not the 56 inches his devotees would have you believe, but sadly shies away from sharing with us the correct measurement. He notes, however, that Modi carries a “special shaving comb" for his beard, and underwent a hair transplant that enabled him to “reclaim part of his receding hairline and appear less bald for the December (2007) election campaign."

By the time you reach the final pages of the book, three things become clear: one, Modi is, first and foremost, a product of image management; two, there is very little to choose between his version of “Hindu nationalism" and the Congress version of “secularism"; and three, in the context of Modi’s acceptability as a leader, it is meaningless to speak of “moving on" from Gujarat 2002.

Mukhopadhyay’s biography illuminates the paradox at the heart of Modi’s political ascendancy: In the weeks preceding 28 February, 2002, Modi was an unelected chief minister in search of a safe assembly seat to contest from. The BJP had been losing by-elections, and when Modi requested BJP MLA Haren Pandya to give up his Ellis Bridge seat in Ahmedabad, Pandya basically told him to go take a hike. Eventually, another politician, Vajubhai Vala, agreed to vacate his seat in Rajkot. Modi contested from it and won, but his margin of victory was much smaller than Vala’s had been. Plus there were his adversaries in the Gujarat unit of the BJP plotting against him. It was beginning to look like he might end up as another of those accidental chief ministers who soon pass into political oblivion. And then, on 27 February 2002, came the attack on the Sabarmati Express, and the ensuing riots, and things were never the same again for Modi.

Nobody can dispute that Modi’s life and career can safely be demarcated into the pre-2002 era and the post-2002 era. Mukhopadhyay points out that until 2002, Modi felt keenly the absence of an identity. Of all the top rung (and aspiring top rung) BJP politicians, he was the only one without an “Ayodhya connection"—he wasn’t quite on the scene during L.K. Advani’s rath yatra and the subsequent demolition of the Babri Masjid. Nor did Modi have a distinct place in the leadership like, say, an Arun Jaitley, “the suave urbane face of reason" or a Sushma Swaraj, “the urban middle class woman leader"; nor was he an Other Backward Classes (OBC) representative like Kalyan Singh or Uma Bharati.

The 2002 riots gave him a distinctive identity that nobody else in the BJP could lay claim to. It also gave him the “Ayodhya connection" that he resented lacking—the kar sevaks who perished in the fire, and whose deaths were sought to be “avenged" in the riots, were returning from Ayodhya. So when people speak of “moving on" from Gujarat 2002—they are essentially asking for an erasure of Modi’s identity. Take away Gujarat 2002 from Modi, and you get just another politician. Which is why all the song and dance about what he’s done for Gujarat’s development will never sound as convincing, or command as much electoral traction, as a well-timed snarl at the minorities, and this is something that Modi will keep doing.

The other aspect of Modi that comes through rather starkly is his authoritarianism. His own friends and well-wishers assert time and again that he does not like to listen. And if he becomes the prime minister—coalition or no coalition —you can expect him to ride roughshod over democratic norms to get what he wants. The irony is that for many in the world’s largest democracy, especially in the corporate sector, this is part of his appeal.

It is next to impossible not to see Modi either through the prism of the 2002 riots, or the prism of a brand of aggressive economic governance that Mukhopadhyay characterizes—correctly so—as “growth-promoting dictatorship". Those who see him through the former find only a mass murderer, and those who prefer the latter prism see a knight in shining armour who will lead India to economic nirvana provided we’re ready to “move on" from the past. The middle path between these two positions is so narrow that not many have been known to walk it. Mukhopadhyay’s achievement is to have walked it for 400 pages, without stumbling once. This is one book that is bound to keep the Modi-baiter as well as the Modi-lover engaged from the word go.