New Delhi, Sept. 13: As the legend of Narendra Modi grows in Gujarat, one story remains a perennial favourite.
Every journalist or parivar cadre who claims an old friendship with Modi will tell you how, in his “penniless” days, he hitched rides on their two-wheelers and let them pay for the tea and snacks he had at roadside stalls.
Today, amid all the talk about Modi’s designer glasses and gizmos and the raw silk outfits he wears to corporate jamborees, these stories of his impoverished past are what his party would be playing up to battle a perception that he favours only the affluent.
Efforts will be made to showcase Modi’s humble beginnings — from working in an oil mill with his mother and siblings to becoming a canteen hand — to advantage against the Congress leadership’s “elitist” and “western-educated” background.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s bush radio is already blaring to the country’s northern hinterlands the gospel of Modi’s origins in the backward Ghanchi (oil presser) caste.
Yet, however disadvantaged his background, the man himself never let it cramp his style or ambition. It had something to do with his “personality”, claim his acquaintances from the Sangh.
Modi joined the Sangh as a teen, apparently to escape the daily drudgery of the home-school-work-home routine. But even in his early days, as he cleaned and cooked at the Sangh’s Ahmedabad headquarters, he made it clear to his superiors that he would not abide entirely by the organisation’s norms.
He often skipped the morning shakha (camp), wore white shorts (instead of khaki ones) and short-sleeved kurtas (he later explained to an interviewer he wanted to shorten the time spent washing them).
He even wore a trimmed beard, something only the then sarsanghachalak, M.S. Golwalkar, sported in Sangh circles.
But such indiscretions were excused because, early on, Modi had proved his organisational acumen to the Sangh.
His first major assignment in the BJP, to which the Sangh had “leased” him in 1987 never to recall him again, was organising a countrywide yatra for Murli Manohar Joshi in 1991.
Joshi was then party president but L.K. Advani’s pack of loyalists, principally K.N. Govindacharya and Pramod Mahajan, kept their distance from him. Modi sniffed an opening to register his presence nationally.
He accompanied Joshi on the Kanyakumari-to-Kashmir Ekta Yatra and returned chuffed and ready to take on the Gujarat BJP old-timer, Shankersinh Vaghela.
Today, few in the BJP remember Joshi’s journey but a website hosted by a Modi supporter has repackaged the yatra as Modi’s baby with no mention of Joshi.
In Gujarat, Modi tried to form a battle plan against Vaghela. So deep was their mutual animosity that when, in 1995, Vaghela plotted the downfall of then chief minister Keshubhai Patel, Modi retaliated on Keshubhai’s behalf.
His prowess in mobilising the cadre was evident at the street meetings he held to marshal opinion against Vaghela but his luck ran out when Keshubhai was forced to step aside in favour of Vaghela’s candidate Suresh Mehta.
But Modi has always had a knack for converting adversity into opportunity. When Vaghela left the BJP, he convinced the Delhi brass that he had been the first to forewarn the party of Vaghela’s “dubious loyalty”.
He not only earned brownie points with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani and company but rose from national secretary to organisation secretary, functioning as a conduit between the Sangh and the BJP.
Modi was put in charge of northern states like Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and used the opportunity to build lasting networks with local leaders and workers, creating a band of followers outside Gujarat.
The turning point came when he was handed the job of Gujarat chief minister by then Prime Minister Vajpayee. It didn’t happen by chance.
Modi had quietly engineered a revolt against Keshubhai, whose alleged nepotism, poor governance and inept handling of the Bhuj earthquake had cost the BJP the local body polls and prestigious Assembly by-elections.
The new chief minister virtually began his Gandhinagar innings with the 2002 pogrom of Muslims. His sympathisers claimed he was inexperienced and, therefore, not quite on top of the job.
Privately, BJP leaders argued that the political gains from the Hindu-Muslim polarisation the violence had left behind outweighed the negative impact it had had globally. The BJP has won every Gujarat election since then.
Modi has never managed to live down the violence but, typically, has never allowed it to hold him back, either.
In 2003, shortly after he had won his first election in end-2002, a meeting of industry chamber CII in Delhi reminded him that ensuring the security of every citizen was paramount. More trenchant criticism came from industry heads. Modi dubbed his critics “pseudo-secularists”.
He hit back by banding together a group of influential Gujarati industrialists into an outfit called the Resurgent Group of Gujarat, which rapped the CII for not being mindful of “Gujarati pride”.
Realising the costs of angering Modi, some CII leaders privately made amends with him. Today, industry representatives fall over one another to get invited to the biennial “Vibrant Gujarat” shows.
Modi’s leap from Gandhinagar to New Delhi has not been sudden, either. Among chief ministers, he has been a pioneer of sorts in showcasing that states are not beholden to the Centre, do not survive on Delhi’s doles and can often hold their own against the “central sultanate”.
Like the Congress, the BJP is rooted in a unitary worldview, favouring a strong Centre. By constantly highlighting the Centre-versus-states theme and Delhi’s propensity to play “Big Brother” to chief ministers, Modi has compelled the parivar to revise its views on who is better suited to lead a government at the Centre.
Should it be a “successful” chief minister with proven administrative experience? Or should it be a “rootless” parlour politician who relies on the chief ministers to foster his or her own relevance?
Modi’s elevation from Gandhinagar to potential Prime Minister marks a first for the Sangh-BJP.