'Minorities may be allergic to the BJP, but not to me'

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 7.08.11

Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi is known to be an accessible leader — someone who always responds to phone calls and replies to emails on his iPad.

Then why am I having such trouble locating him? We have an appointment to meet at his official residence in Patna — but finding the bungalow is not easy. For one, every house on Polo Road — the city’s so-called VIP area — looks the same. And two, nobody seems to know which of the bungalows houses Modi, Bihar finance minister and a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader who has just been elected chairman of the empowered committee of state finance ministers on the proposed goods and services tax (GST).

After a search that would have done Columbus proud, I discover his house and the truth: he does not live at his official residence.

“I have never spent a night here,” Modi says. A cloud of dust and din swirls around him, kicked up by a dozen workmen hammering in wood panels, sawing plywood and putting in glass panes to “improve” the bungalow’s appearance.

A good way from Polo Road is Rajendranagar’s Road 8A. Modi, a former Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) activist, lives in this affluent neighbourhood with his wife Jessie George, a Roman Catholic from Kerala, in his own house.

His private house — like his private life — is off limits not just to visitors but also to his party men, whom he meets only at his official residence.

Modi, who led the BJP to victory in the November 2010 Bihar Assembly election in alliance with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), winning 91 of the 102 seats the BJP contested, is an intensely private man. A loving husband who didn’t ask his wife, a practising Christian, to convert to Hinduism, he is also a doting father who didn’t miss a single parent-teacher meeting at Mayo College in Ajmer, where his two sons studied.

A fitness freak who cannot do without his 45-minute morning walk followed by another 45 minutes of yoga, Modi doesn’t sound like your usual RSS functionary or BJP leader. But the member of the Bihar Legislative Council seems to have successfully juggled his public and private life — occasionally at odds with each other — over the years.

Modi says he believes in Hindutva, espoused by the RSS and BJP. “But I also believe firmly that everybody has the right to practise his or her religion,” he says. He is against religious conversion through force or enticement, he explains. But Modi has no problems with someone embracing a religion out of belief.

Not surprisingly, he felt disturbed when sectarian clashes broke out between Hindu and Christian tribals in Kandhamal in Orissa three years ago. “I have never appreciated any communal violence, whether Hindus attacked Christians or Christians attacked Hindus,” he says.

No wonder many in and outside his party call him “the secular Modi”, the epithet distinguishing him from the other Modi in the BJP, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who has been blamed for the 2002 Gujarat communal violence.

The 59-year-old leader, who defied his Patna-based Marwari family to enter politics when they wanted him to join the family wholesale garment business, sees himself as a “man of the people”, irrespective of the religion or community they belong to.

Clearly, Modi is a leader in the socialist mould. As an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activist, he participated in Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-Congress movement in 1974 in Bihar, with other young leaders such as Lalu Prasad, an ally-turned-political foe, and Nitish Kumar, his present boss in the Bihar government.

He was arrested five times under the repealed Maintenance of Internal Security Act and jailed for a total of 24 months during the Emergency.

But more than anything else, Modi — who studied at three schools, two of which were run by missionaries, in Patna, and came second in botany at Patna University in 1973 — is a pragmatist and a survivor who has fought off challenges to his leadership time and again.

In 2008, several BJP ministerial aspirants, during a Cabinet expansion by chief minister Nitish Kumar, called for Modi’s removal as deputy chief minister. But Modi headed off the crisis when the majority of party legislators voted in his favour in a secret ballot.

It is perhaps the same streak of pragmatism that makes his politics inclusive. “No political party, the BJP included, can do politics in Bihar by ignoring the 16 per cent of Muslim population in the state,” says Modi.

The three-time MLA and former Lok Sabha MP from Bhagalpur stresses that Muslims always stood by him when he fought an election. In 2004, when he defeated the CPI(M) candidate in Bhagalpur, Modi says Muslim leaders told him “they could under no circumstances vote for the lotus (the BJP symbol) but would strategically vote for a third candidate — and not for the CPI(M) — since they wanted me to win.”

He adds that most Muslims stayed away from voting — instead of voting against him — in the Patna Central Assembly constituency in 1990, 1995 and 2000, helping him win thrice in a row.

“Minorities may be allergic to my party, but not to me,” says Modi, who did not contest the 2005 and 2010 Assembly elections to be able to campaign for his party.

Modi met his wife, five years his junior, on a train trip to Delhi from Mumbai in the summer of 1985. Jessie, an avid bird watcher who grew up in Mumbai, was on her way to Kashmir on a trip sponsored by the Bombay Natural History Society.

“We were in a second-class carriage, she on the upper berth and I on the lower. We struck up a conversation,” he recalls. Within a year, they were exchanging letters.

An ardent RSS worker mentored by former BJP ideologue K.N. Govindacharya, Modi left the RSS — which did not permit married men to continue as “whole-timers” — when he tied the knot with Jessie. Shortly before they got married on August 13, 1986 — the wedding in Patna was attended, among others, by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee — he quit the ABVP as its all India general secretary. “Vajpayeeji attended the wedding essentially to get across the message that the BJP was not against any religion or inter-caste or inter-racial marriages,” Modi says.

Modi quit active politics and launched the Modi Computer Institute in 1987 with a bank loan of Rs 70,000. “I was married and had to make a living now. My family members who had always wanted me to join business must have felt proud,” he says, with a chuckle.

This was when Modi says he fell in love with computers. Though his fascination for gadgets continues — the busy minister catches live television news on his smart phone regularly and gave up his BlackBerry for the Apple iPad last year to read e-papers while checking emails — his business institute did not last beyond two and a half years. By the early 1990s, he was back in active politics.

Politics has not been an easy road, but what Modi describes as “difficult” is his current assignment at the Centre. The GST, he says, requires constitutional amendment, unlike the value added tax, which has been implemented in phases.

He says all states are “groping in the dark” on what the GST will mean for them. There are contentious issues such as coal, he adds. Coal-producing states want to keep out of the GST for fear of losing revenues. “All in all, it will take time to study, discuss and settle the issues before the GST can be implemented in the country.”

His detractors deride Modi as Nitish Kumar’s “poodle”, always acting at his bidding. But such criticism does not deter the deputy. “I know I am the number two man in the Cabinet and that Nitish Kumar is a powerful chief minister. The last Assembly election was fought in his name,” he says.

His relationship with the chief minister goes back 38 years. “We have fought five Lok Sabha and four Assembly elections together. He takes us into confidence and we have full faith in him,” says Modi, attired in his trademark white kurta-pyjama and a black vest.

Like his boss in government, Modi believes in dispensing “social justice at any cost”. Nitish Kumar apparently told a confidant recently that his deputy had almost become his “carbon copy”, protecting the interests of Dalits and backward classes.

Rinku Devi of Nawada district believes so. At the janta durbar, which Modi holds at his official residence every Tuesday, the 24-year-old woman in a tattered sari weeps about her daughter’s abduction by the child’s step- father.

Modi, turning red with rage, speaks to the district superintendent of police on the phone. “Just find the girl and arrest that man,” he says.

Rinku Devi stops sobbing. She bows her head, raising her hands in pranam.