Home / Politics / Policy /  Narendra Modi: The making of the political leader

That Narendra Modi, the man who will likely be India’s next prime minister, enjoys a unique connection with the masses is evident to anyone who has attended one of the man’s election rallies.

Modi seems to enjoy the attention—which probably dates back to his fondness for theatre when he was young. Back then, he often played the role of Jogidas Khuman, the Robin Hood-type character popular in Gujarati folklore.

Modi’s childhood provides other interesting clues on how he grew up to be the man he is.

Why, for instance, did Modi join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a child? As an eight-year-old from a lower-middle class, backward caste family, how much of politics did he really understand?

The RSS has always believed in catching them young.

Modi once told me that he started going to bal shakhas, or assemblies for children, in the evenings. At the time he did not know what the beliefs of the organizations were, nor what its membership would eventually do for him. It was essentially an old-fashioned outdoor clubhouse for pre-teen children that he went to. The kids would play various games, but Modi also copied the rule book of the shakha into his own style sheet.

He did so because he liked the fact that there was a supreme leader—insistent on discipline—and others obeyed him. The young Modi also appreciated the pyramidal hierarchical structure and found ritual invocations to gods and goddesses and the stylised drill very evocative. Above all, Modi liked the feeling of belonging to a larger community.

Modi, at 12, travelled frequently to nearby Mehsana city to meet soldiers heading for the battlefield on the Sino-Indian border. A few years later, he understood the meaning and impact of war a bit better during the 1965 conflict with Pakistan. Yet, he had little understanding of the socio-political stance of the RSS. At 17, when he was getting increasingly worried about the prospect of cohabiting with Jashodaben Chimanlal, the girl to whom he was betrothed when young, Modi considered several escape routes, but the RSS was not one of them.

Modi then did what most rebels of that age do—he left home. Urban legend lends a dash of cinematic drama to this departure; his mother Hiraba reportedly cooked a favourite dish before the young lad went away.

The story is as difficult to digest as those of a young Modi combating crocodiles in the lake in his overgrown village. Then, how many villages in India boast of being the launch pad of the man who believes that India awaits him?

This is Vadnagar’s moment of glory.

Modi liked regimentation, even attempted to enter a religious order after leaving home with just a shoulder bag. He pursued the romantic Hindu notion of becoming a sanyasi and expressed a desire to join the Ramakrishna Order after spending a few days in its headquarters in Belur, a suburb of Kolkata. But he was not a graduate and the order was rigid about admission norms that required at least a bachelor’s degree. In time, after wandering around the country, Modi returned to Gujarat, and eventually home.

His family still wanted him to cohabit with the girl who was technically his wife. Modi skipped out again—this time for good. In Ahmedabad, he succeeded in gaining admission into an order which in time would get an infamous name tag: the Saffron Brotherhood. In the early 1970s, when Modi joined RSS as a pracharak, all he had by way of political understanding was a searing sentiment against the Congress party and a latent dislike of people from other religions.

Over the next few years, Modi’s career received timely upward nudges from Laxmanrao Inamdar, popularly known as Vakil sahib. He was not just a political guru, but probably the only mentor who has been truly revered by Modi. The others were mere props, cast away when they had served their purpose.

In his early years in the RSS, Modi grew through a combination of patron-client ties within the RSS, hard work and a sharp intellect. He did not have many friends because he liked to be held in awe by contemporaries.

During the emergency (1975-77), Modi donned disguises, carried banned underground literature and arranged transport for underground leaders such as George Fernandes.

The political world outside Gujarat got to see Modi’s organizational skills, manipulative abilities and his fine sartorial taste much before his understanding of politics. When he was inducted into the party’s national executive for the first time in 1991 during the national council meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, he got noticed for the huge telephone bills he ran up speaking to colleagues in Gujarat. He proudly communicated to associates that he had been appointed national coordinator for Murli Manohar Joshi’s ekta yatra. The yatra halted Joshi’s further rise but catapulted Modi to national prominence. Modi told me that he concentrated on becoming an “organizational man".

The transition from a backroom expert to a demagogue began in the summer of 2002 after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s attempt to dislodge Modi failed.

Modi began his campaign—the first of the many he has waged since then—with searing words, fuming intent and unabashed aggression. Modi revelled when people wanted his head and he grew more popular in his core constituency. In the 2014 campaign, Modi would have had reason to smile: calls to Muslims to vote as a collective serves his interest because it gives him an opportunity to polarize the electorate.

Because personal aspiration and ambition were Modi’s primary drivers in the RSS, his goal is simply the acquisition of power. He is no religious crusader. Though he defines India and Indian nationhood in terms of cultural nationalism, Modi will make use of religious causes only until it is necessary to do so to acquire power. If its disuse becomes obligatory to retain political power, he has the ability to reinvent himself.

Modi has a misplaced understanding of several political and social issues but none regarding his abilities. He knows that political power is unlikely to come his way by routes of persuasion but only through forms of subjugation of others. It makes securing a decisive mandate absolutely imperative. I once asked him how he would secure the numbers to come to power because the National Democratic Alliance was shrinking. He replied that parties would return to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) flock if the party improved its winnability. Once parties perceive that they can be on the winning side by joining a BJP-led alliance, they would not hesitate, he implied. The Telugu Desam Party is the latest to think Modi will deliver.

In a reflective statement, the sagacious but much-chastened L.K. Advani said that the outcome of no previous election has been influenced so overpoweringly by the announcement of a prime ministerial candidate. Like many times previously, Advani is again bang on target.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a senior journalist and author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

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