Three key political turning points in his life gave Modi a chance to rule India
On Oct. 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 71, will complete 20 uninterrupted years in public life. In 2001, he became the Chief Minister (CM) of Gujarat. In 2014, he became Prime Minister of India for the first term and went on to win a second term in 2019.
The completion of two decades of unparalleled journey evokes many vignettes of Modi’s public life. His life’s trajectory from 1967 to 2001 has several uncommon elements.
Modi never had any home address until he became the CM. He stayed away from his biological family and didn’t own a house, so he got a novel experience of having hundreds of lunches and dinners and overnight stays in mostly ordinary middle-class homes of the supporters and workers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for around 35 years.
For several decades Modi didn’t even own a bank account. What gave him an edge over many of his contemporaries is that before he came to power, he had travelled all over India, without much budget, to grasp the issues corroding India. His travel diary is quite rich in terms of first-hand knowledge of the varieties of issues.
I first met Narendra bhai, as we called him then, during 1981-82 in the house of late Professor Pravin Sheth in Ahmedabad. Prof Sheth used to head the Department of Political Science at the Gujarat University. Modi was in the RSS, studying in the postgraduate class.
Sheth told me that Narendra bhai reads a lot. “He has a curiosity to know things and is a bit restless to gain knowledge. Often delving into details, Modi is a good observer and a patient listener,” the professor informed me. Since then I have been following and reporting Modi’s career growth.
If one looks back and compares Modi of 1981 and Modi of 2021, with his flowing white beard, the most consistent feature of Modi that strikes you is his belief in himself.
Modi’s self-confidence can be seen in his time-management and hard work that stretches human limits to the maximum, and his habit of planning things much in advance. It is not tampered by even occasional self-doubts.
His biggest weakness is his strong likes and dislikes. Modi finds it hard to let go off a grudge. Due to this — he has a somewhat sour relation with a section of the media, and can be tough on his critics and political adversaries.
Modi’s long tenure in power has been neither smooth nor congenial. His biggest worry is that under his leadership India continues to remain sharply divided on a variety of sensitive issues.
The Prime Minister’s fears and insecurities, common to most world leaders, have nonetheless rattled the New Delhi establishment’s status quo.
There is little doubt that the erection of Sardar Patel statue in Gujarat, building of the new Parliament, rejuvenating Hindu infrastructure in Kashi, Ayodhya and elsewhere, embarking on the last-mile development projects for poor, revoking Article 370, initiating economic and financial reforms like GST, and direct communication with his followers has built him an enduring legacy.
The journey from a Sangh pracharak (worker) to the office of the Prime Minister, Modi’s political life has had three major political turning points.
There was a tradition in Jan Sangh (BJP’s early avatar) to send one pracharak as the secretary (Organisation). Pracharak Modi joined BJP in 1987. He soon formed his own Team Modi. That has become Modi’s signature style of governance, which continues in the PMO in New Delhi. Amit Shah became his loyal deputy around that time.
Modi creates his own core group, motivates them, gives them projects to fulfil and backs them fully. Until the goals are achieved, the team doesn’t rest.
Modi’s path was not an easy one to create. BJP had many stalwarts in Gujarat, all several decades senior to him. The party had giants like Keshubhai Patel, Shankersinh Vaghela, Ashok Bhatt etc. Each one of them had contributed in building the BJP brick by brick. But, Modi soon became the centre of change within the BJP with his thorough knowledge of the caste system.
His contacts in powerful religious sects, social institutions and in the corporate world helped. Modi was among the first leaders to adopt technology to spread political messaging. Unwavering in his anti-Congress politics all along, he considers the party (BJP) the most important medium of his politics and takes it very seriously.
Another turning point came in 1995 when Gujarat BJP’s top decision making body unanimously decided to ask him to leave Gujarat and stay away from state politics. It was a decision that eventually cost all the seniors their careers.
Modi turned the snub into an opportunity. In Delhi he expanded his vision, created a pan-India network, made friends in the national media and understood the inner workings of the national BJP and its leaders. But he was keen to return to Gujarat politics.
BJP headquarters conveyed to Keshubhai, then CM, to make Modi chief of the state BJP. Patel strongly objected to Modi’s return from Delhi. A senior BJP leader who was privy to it says, “After losing the Sabarmati by-election and the local elections, Patel’s political position had weakened. He made a fatal mistake in rejecting the proposal to let Modi lead the party.”
On Aug. 25, 2001, the year of 75th anniversary of RSS, Modi arranged important Tapovandana event to facilitate all the RSS workers and leaders who built Sangh pariwar in Gujarat. In less than two months, on Oct. 7, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed to replace Patel. That was when Modi came to power (as Gujarat CM) for the first time.
The third important turning point in Modi’s political march came when the 2007 assembly victory effectively demonstrated to Sangh Pariwar how the assertion of Hindu identity can bring votes. The recultance of Advani-Vajpayee era receded almost overnight.
The victory of 2007 (which followed BJP’s 2002 win) finally gave the party the confidence to discard the reluctance of showcasing itself as a Hindu party. Henceforth development and Hindutva would be BJP’s twin planks.
As a dedicated RSS man, Modi patiently waited in the queue to let LK Advani play out his innings in 2009. After Advani’s defeat, Modi made his move on Delhi. There was no looking back.
In 2021 Modi continues to remain unchallenged within his party.
Sheela Bhatt is a senior Indian journalist. She is based in New Delhi.
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