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One man’s incredible journey

The last time India elected a single party to rule itself Narendra Modi was an anonymous pracharak of the RSS apprenticing in the debris of devastated barracks. Indira Gandhi’s assassination had handed Rajiv a merciless Lok Sabha majority; his adversaries lay decimated. The BJP had two members of Parliament. There wasn’t much to apprentice with in the Sangh Parivar’s mainstream precincts. It was 1984, a time for solitary reaping in the Opposition’s ransacked ranks.

The next time India elected a single party to rule itself, three decades later, the 16th day of May 2014, Narendra Modi stood adorned with the coronet of unprecedented achievement. In fact, a string of unprecedented achievements. The spearhead of the first non-Congress party to wrest power single-handed in New Delhi. The first from a classified backward community to arrive at the helm of the nation. The first chief minister to become Prime Minister in a single, stunning leap. Pracharak to Pradhan Mantri. When he mounted the Vadodara rostrum on Friday evening astride an electoral avalanche and pronounced himself merely “Mazdoor No 1”, he spurred his delirious votaries to roaring. It’s solitary reaping time no more, it has become a harvest beyond the imaginings of those who sowed the seeds of this saffron tempest.

Risen at twilight was a man a constituency far wider than Vadodara’s millions, far wider than India’s billion-plus, was looking at with a rainbow range of sentiments — hope and expectation, rapture and ravishment, bewilderment and keen curiosity, even fear and apprehension. Narendra Modi is about to be sworn into leadership of the world’s biggest democracy, the globe is tuning in, or will have to. A leading EU ambassador in Delhi told The Telegraph as the EVMs were wheeled in for the cascade count on Thursday night: “For us he has been a man not to ignore for a while now, which is why we made our openings to him more than a year back. Now, we cannot afford not to know who this man really is, what he means, what he intends, how he will conduct what he intends to conduct. At the moment he probably dictates the highest curiosity value the world over.”

Curiosity may not prove enough to fetch answers, though. Narendra Modi remains an enigma even to those who have been closest to him. The mother of the 64-year-old Prime Minister-designate included. In 2002, following his first victory in Gujarat, I travelled to his native Vadnagar to attempt piecing together a face that even then seemed worth a close look at. She lived at the time in a tiny two-storey house abutting a water-tank that’s hub to Vadnagar. The old lady was reticent to begin with and remained so through the half hour of time she granted. All she offered me was: “But what do I really know about my son? He left us as a teenager saying nothing to me other than that he was going. He has rarely come back, he has always had us told he is at work. I know little of my son.”

Ask Pankaj Madholkar, head of the Ahmedabad-based Aakriti, the PR firm that branded Modi’s Vibrant Gujarat project, and you get pretty much an echo of the mother. “The one thing I can tell you about Narendra Modi is that anyone who claims to be close to him or to know him is lying. It isn’t possible to become close to Narendra Modi.” There is a territory Modi has practised to shield zealously from any prying — the core of Narendra Modi. At the end of the day — or at the beginning of it — the man who has courted, and won, stirring mass adulation, is a solitary man.

But clues to some of what he wanted to fashion for himself he had begun to drop early. That same year I went to Vadnagar following Modi’s 2002 victory, I wrote a long piece which began thus: “There are many who believe that this man is headed not for Gandhinagar but for New Delhi, that the tide he has unleashed will soon gobble up his mighty mentors — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and company — and deliver him at the helm of the Party and the Parivar, perhaps even of the country. In a skewed but probably telling sense he has already raised the bar of competition higher than any other Indian chief minister would; he is not in a contest with locals, he has pitted himself against Pervez Musharraf, or at least that’s what the pitch of his campaign is. And when he picks adversaries at home, he picks Sonia Gandhi, hardly ever Shankarsinh Vaghela, his former shakha-mate and chief provincial challenger. The psychological template of his battle is not provincial, it’s national, that’s the stage he is fashioning.”

Since then, he has charted an extraordinary course that has brooked no obstacle, although obstacles there have been many. The 2002 bloodshed under his watch in Gujarat left him deeply stained, even more deeply suspected. It brought him widespread national condemnation and fair international censure. For years, western capitals remained out of bounds for the man who would be India’s Prime Minister. For years, at home his essential description was of an architect of fractures, a leader who created divides then straddled them on his way up. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Prime Minister, raised a cautionary finger at him post the 2002 violence and motioned him to follow “raj dharma”. A little later, when he arrived at the BJP’s national executive in Goa, Modi appeared to be teasing formal disapproval by his party. Not to be. He returned from Goa, patted on his back; he won the first of his three elections soon thereafter. He had stared criticism in the eye, and continues doing so. The absence of evidence of being involved in the violence, the absence of a legal case against him had, at least to his growing constituency, added credibility to his dare.

No other contemporary politician has brought upon himself such sustained and aggressive scrutiny — for allegedly masterminding communal mayhem, for alleged extra-judicial killings, for alleged snooping on the privacy of citizens. All of those remain allegations; Modi hasn’t cared who chose to believe them. To his constituency, which today extends across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, that made him look like a “strong man”, someone who could swallow a siege or throw it off. He has remained coldly impervious to criticism through more than a decade; stony to calls that he take responsibility for mass mayhem on his watch as Gujarat chief minister: Prove I was involved and I shall apologise. Nobody, nothing has been able to drag him to that pass. He has long been at the sullied end of perception; he and the BJP would hope today’s mandate will help wash some of that.

He has been called a majoritarian and he has seemed not to mind it; in fact he wore the tag proudly and has apparently profited from it. Following his anointment as chairman of the BJP’s campaign committee last year — also at Goa — billboards appeared on Mumbai’s Marine Drive where Modi proclaimed himself a “Hindu Nationalist” — that was how he launched the campaign he has now won.

But that’s only a part of the Narendra Modi story. While he weathered a nationwide cloud of suspicion, he had begun to unveil another facet of himself, a parallel discourse that he would bring the centrality of his attention and appeal to. He had begun to marry his majorityism with a deserved and even better publicised image as doer-king whose governance objectives would not allow political barricading or bureaucratic red tape. He began to visibly upscale Gujarat’s already prodigious reputation as a business hub, attracted India’s wealthiest industry captains with single-window investment offers, and forced Western nations to loosen their reservations and rush to open their doors. In the process, Modi was able to posit himself as a credible — and probably sole — national alternative, striking a contrast to the bedevilled and increasingly ramshackle UPA II. It has helped him immensely that Modi’s apogee has coincided with the UPA’s plummet, an establishment impeded by recurrent scandal and slowdown, a set that blundered on while Modi burgeoned.

The Modi drive on prime ministership began well ahead of his official anointment as nominee. That too is part of how the man works. Once he has determined a course, he gets down to achieving it tactician-like, come what may. Even if, along the route, he must neutralise or sideline mentors and peers, friends or foe. L.K. Advani: forced into wrapping up his reservations, disallowed his choice of Bhopal for the Lok Sabha. Murli Manohar Joshi: eased out of Varanasi, carted off to Kanpur. Jaswant Singh: plainly jettisoned. Much earlier, Gujarat saw ruthless sidelining of predecessor provincial satraps upon Modi’s arrival — Keshubhai Patel, Kashiram Rana, among others.

In due course, the Modi campaign was to up its station, appearing to disengage from factional concerns, seeking to project a more evolved persona vowing allegiance to pluralism, the composite nature of India, distancing itself from sectarian virulence on the flanks such as Giriraj Singh repeatedly brought to the campaign. Logistically, it was a high-voltage juggernaut like no other this country has seen — 437 public meetings between last September and now, and 1,350 3-D hologram-based interactions that were broadcast to 5,390 locations. One man, only one, effected such peppering of Battlefield 2014: Narendra Modi. He returned home to Gandhinagar each night, he was storming some far corner of the country the next morning, day after day, week after week. It has decidedly been the most extravagantly funded and elaborately planned electoral outing; it has also been the most energetic and untiring. And that wasn’t all. Along hummed hundreds of multi-media engines, firing up the wingsides of Mission 272+, willing it, against conventional understandings of coalition politics having become an Indian inevitability, to become reality.

Madholkar of Aakriti would take nothing away from the centrality of Modi to all of that. “He is a man of remarkable memory, remarkable attention to detail,” Madholkar says. “He sits across a glass-top table in his office in Gandhinagar and each time some camera crew arrives he asks if they have got a black-balancer, else the reflection would spoil the images. He knows the littlest details about things that interest him. We once shot a promo and as I was leaving, he stopped me and told me one visual had got repeated. He was right. I had not noticed, but he had.”

Asked to pick one singular quality of his leader, Piyush Goyal, national treasurer of the BJP and a core member of Team 272+, told The Telegraph: “That one thing to me is composed. He never gets rattled, he is chilled. You will see that with him. If you are in a meeting with him you will see how unruffled he is, how well he can listen.” He probably still gives you no idea what’s going on in that private sphere of his.

Keep keenly watching. Narendra Modi is now centrestage.