Making of Narendra Modi: How India's PM-elect went from being a spartan wanderlust to fashioning the future of Hindutva politics

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi has often been criticised for his partiality to travel, but his itinerancy long predates his arrival to power.

FP Politics May 30, 2019 10:35:47 IST
Making of Narendra Modi: How India's PM-elect went from being a spartan wanderlust to fashioning the future of Hindutva politics
  • Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi has often been criticised for his partiality to travel, but his itinerancy long predates his arrival to power.

  • In 1971, after spending nearly two years working and living the Jagannath Temple, Modi formally became an RSS <em>pracharak</em> (campaigner) and moved to the RSS headquarters—Hedgewar Bhavan in Ahmedabad’s Maninagar area.

  • An important turn in came in Narendra Modi’s career came in 1987 when then RSS chief Deoras decided that he should be tasked with strengthening the BJP in Gujarat.

The imagery is familiar—Narendra Modi in flowing saffron robes against a Himalayan backdrop, Modi sharing moments of bonhomie with armed personnel, Modi taking a reverent dip in holy waters. The photographs described above, however, were taken long before Modi ever fought an election or earned his reputation as a master of photo-ops. They date back to his little-known years as a young man who was pulled between his spiritual leanings, military interests and political calling.

While most people are aware of how Modi sold tea for livelihood, very few know the details of his life as something of a wandering mendicant and RSS pracharak before he catapulted himself into mainstream politics.

Making of Narendra Modi How Indias PMelect went from being a spartan wanderlust to fashioning the future of Hindutva politics

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi pays his respects at the Samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat, before being sworn in as the prime minister for the second consecutive term, in New Delhi, Thursday, 30 May, 2019. PTI

‘Undecided, unguided, unclear’

Prime Minister Modi has often been criticised for his partiality to travel, but his itinerancy long predates his arrival to power. His youth—in particular, the two-decade span between 1968 and 1988—were marked by spiritual seeking, including perambulations to some of the most physically hostile territories in India starting when he was only 17 years old, and dogged organisational ascent.

Born to a large family (he has five siblings) that struggled to make ends meet—his father was a tea vendor at a railway station and his mother scrubbed utensils in other people’s houses—Modi perhaps always had a sense that he was destined for something greater. While he helped his father at the tea stall as a child, he began to get restless as he approached adulthood. His dreams of undergoing military training were dashed due to financial constraints, but he was still in search of something transcendent—he has said in interviews that he always wanted to serve the nation, but was “undecided, unguided and unclear”.

Knowing that their son had one foot out of the door, Modi’s family attempted to moor him to family life by getting him married at the age of 17 to Jashodaben, a girl from a nearby village. But he was having none of it. In 1968, the year he got married, Modi left his home to chart a new path for himself—his travels of nearly two years took him to Ramakrishna Ashram in Rajkot, to West Bengal’s Belur Math founded by Swami Vivekananda (where he was not allowed to stay as he was not a graduate), and to different points in the Himalayas, from Haridwar to Dehradun to Kedarnath.

Jan Sangh and VHP

In the last months of 1969, the prodigal son decided to make his way back home to Vadnagar but reportedly stayed for just a night before moving to Ahmedabad to live with his maternal uncle Babubhai. The young Modi sometimes helped his uncle at his canteen at a bus station, but also forged new connections. One fortuitous meeting was with Ambalal Koshti, the general secretary of the Jan Sangh’s Kankariya ward. It was Amabalal who reintroduced Modi to his childhood hero Lakshman Rao Inaamdaar aka Vakeel Saheb, the prant pracharak (state leader) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Gujarat.

Soon, Modi was made the general secretary of the Jan Sangh’s Kankariya ward, and also became associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Clues to his future endeavours lie in his activities as a full-time VHP worker—he collected funds for the victims of the 1969 communal riots in Ahmedabad and set up donation boxes for the cause of cow protection.

During this period, the VHP was based in two rooms of Jagannath Temple in Ahmedabad’s Jamalpur area. In one of these two rooms, Modi lived with his colleagues, sometimes sleeping on the roof of the building next to the temple. This habit proved hard to break: even after he became the chief minister of Gujarat in October 2001, Modi would sometimes silently climb up to sleep on the roof of the chief minister’s residence until his security personnel dissuaded him following the 2002 terrorist attack on Akshardham Temple. He never forgot the temple, however. It was in Jagannath Temple that he went for darshan after taking charge as chief minister of Gujarat for the first time in 2001, and it was from there that he started his rath yatra no less than 12 times.

The early RSS years

In 1971, after spending nearly two years working and living the Jagannath Temple, Modi formally became an RSS pracharak (campaigner) and moved to the RSS headquarters—Hedgewar Bhavan in Ahmedabad’s Maninagar area.

Since Modi was the youngest pracharak, it was his job to keep the place clean and arrange tea and snacks for senior workers. Modi’s routine included buying milk at 5 am, preparing tea at 5.15 am and waking up the other pracharaks—there were 25 to 30 people living in the building’s eight rooms—before getting started on his housekeeping duties, which by all accounts he excelled at.

Modi had to prove his mettle: he had become a pracharak without undergoing the mandatory three-year Sangh training. Nonetheless, he never needed a formal mentorship. Modi credits Vakeel Saheb for teaching him the art of organisation and management. He was able to showcase his abilities in 1973 when the VHP’s All India Conference was held in Siddhpur. Modi was tasked with arranging food and lodging for the attendees and entrusted with the grand sum of Rs 80,000. Worried about the safety of the cash, Modi buried the notes under a tree beside the Saraswati River. Two days later when Vakeel Saheb asked for the money, Modi unearthed it. His mentor was reportedly surprised as Modi’s methods, which hinted already at a propensity for calculated risk-taking. The Siddhpur meeting was also important for Modi since it brought him to the notice of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the sarsanghchalak (supreme leader) of the RSS.

That same year, Modi completed his first year of Sangh training at Nadiad and spent a year there as Kheda district pracharak, where he mobilised youth in the area. In this period, he stayed in a room in Santram Temple and gave up eating grains for six months, subsisting primarily on milk.

Political activism

After his stint at Nadiad, Modi returned to Ahmedabad, where the political atmosphere had become increasingly charged, with students’ agitations taking place against inflation and corruption. Modi too became a part of the movement, as a result of which the Congress government led by Chimanbhai Patel was dismissed, elections held, and a new regime formed under Babubhai Patel. Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi imposing Emergency, causing reverberations in Gujarat too.

Modi went underground, publishing and distributing literature against Emergency. He also became an important channel of communication among leaders and played a key role in preparing an underground network of volunteers. To escape arrest once, he even disguised himself as a Sikh man. After Emergency was lifted, Modi wrote a book titled Gujarat in Struggle based on his experiences.

His performance did not go unnoticed. In 1978, Modi was appointed as the RSS vibhaag pracharak in Vadodara, where he was responsible for RSS activities in a number of districts. That same year, he also completed his third year of Sangh training from Nagpur and earned a bachelor’s degree through correspondence from Delhi University (upon the insistence of Vakeel Saheb). His ascent in the RSS was interspersed with spells of public service such as taking time away from his organisational duties to assist in relief work during the collapse in 1979 of the Machchhu Dam in Rajkot.

In 1981, Modi returned to Ahmedabad and was made the vibhaag pracharak of Gandhinagar, tasked with increasing the activities of the Sangh in Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad rural, and Sabarkantha district. Based in Dholka, the centre of the Sangh's activities, Modi’s lifestyle remained unchanged: he lived in a small shared room in a temple compound, often retreating to the roof to sleep.

There’s a photo of Modi dating to around this time—1984—with then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras. The future prime minister is slim and his now-signature beard is missing, his body language is not as expansive. Many people in Dholka remember the leader from back then, including Rasikbhai Rathod, who stayed with Modi. Rathod says Modi was always punctual, disciplined, and unconcerned about trivialities such as food and dress. Yet, while Modi’s lifestyle may have been simple, his skill at managing complex organisational issues was known and he was made the vyavastha pramukh (chief organiser) in Ahmedabad even as completed his master’s in political science from Gujarat University.

A leap into politics

An important turn in came in Modi’s career came in 1987 when then RSS chief Deoras decided that he should be tasked with strengthening the BJP in Gujarat. Modi delivered right away. Soon after joining the party, he helped lead the BJP to victory in the Ahmedabad’s Municipal Corporation elections—a first for the BJP. Subsequently, in 1988, he was appointed as the general secretary (organisation) of BJP's Gujarat unit. However, before accepting this responsibility, Modi once again returned to the Himalayas where he took turns to don ascetic robes and play with guns, as pictures attest. The story of Modi’s journey in subsequent years—his rise in BJP ranks, as three-time chief minister of Gujarat and two-time prime minister—is too well known to bear repeating, but Sangh, sanyas, and temples have always marked the way.

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