When it comes to writing biographies the life of Narendra Modi has been one of the most interesting subjects going around over the last decade. But no book which makes an objective assetsment of the life and times of Modi has been written till date. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay‘s Narendra Modi – The Man. The Times (Tranquebar, Rs 495), seeks to fill this gap. Mukhopadhyay has worked for several newspapers and magazines like The Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Outlook and The Statesman, in the past. He is also the author of The Demolition: India at the Crossroads. In this free-wheeling interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul, on how Modi’s life has impacted his politics and how his politics is impacting all of us.
Can you tell us a little bit about Narendra Modi’s childhood?
Decoding Modi’s childhood was very important to me from the outset because the die was cast then in his case also. I used this tool of the simultaneity of time. I portrayed events in Gujarat and India in 1950 when he was born, the political developments taking place in the 1950s when the Modi was becoming aware of the world outside his cocoon. Vadnagar(where Modi was brought up) in the mid 1950s was such a small place, that every one would have also known even the stones on the walls, forget each other. There was single train that went on the metre gauge track and it returned – on way to Mehsana in the evening. Not many people crossed the village for his father’s tea-shop to be doing roaring business. Life must have been tough though better than the working class who slugged it out in the fields of the rich farmers.
What is Modi’s own take on his childhood?
When I interacted with Modi early on, he did not romanticise about his difficult childhood. Many people in public life have used their deprived childhood as a reason for a slip here and there. In most early interactions, he was reticent to talk about his childhood. It became a media story after he became chief minister and image building became a necessity after the 2002 riots. The sob stories were fed to an eager media in those years. There were some problematic associations that I have probed and come up with some fresh information. They are indicative of his weaknesses, like his aggression and defiance of teachers.
You write that Modi’s mother was the only one who during those days felt that her son was destined for bigger things….
My claim that his mother being sure that he would break free from the lower middle class trappings is concerned, this is based on what his old friends said. Modi biography was first and foremost a simple narrative to me, with all its high and lows, the melodrama and the mania. I wrote the early chapters trying to find traces of his present. But instead of going from the present to the past, I let the past evolve into the present.
You talk about how very early in life Modi liked to present himself well. He also had a love for acting and theatre…
While talking of his early life, Modi mentioned that he joined the Maha Gujarat agitation at the age of six. He did not know much about it and was in it because it provided a platform to display enthusiasm. He got the spotlight and thereafter there was no looking back. From leading the ‘baccha brigade’ in the agitation, he was at the forefront in the volunteer camps during the 1962 war. Barely twelve, how could the family imagine Modi will return to the cocoon. He found expression to his desire for the outside world through theatre, Bal Shakhas and his swimming adventures. By the time he was in pre-teens, Modi had broken free of the herd of classmates.
How good was he at his studies?
He was a mediocre student but he nosed ahead through extra-curricular activities. Theatre, political activism and currying favours from elders by cosying up to them were on this path. It became important for Modi to look different. He folded his clothes neatly and after folding them put them below the mattress – this was the way most Indians families have traditionally ironed clothes. He participated in elocution contests in school and acted in plays – grabbing the lead roles.
And how did these traits evolve in his later life?
At some point the entire external space became a stage. This increased manifold after the victory in 2002. The term Modi Kurta was coined around that time though the idea of a half sleeves kurta was there from the 1960s thanks to a Jana Sangh leader but without such popularity. The success of the Modi Kurta shows that styles becomes fashionable only after celebrity endorsement. And, lets accept – Modi has acquired celebrity status. But political leaders always had distinctive dressing styles. From Mahatma Gandhi’s loincloth to Dr A P J Abdul Kalam’s hairstyle. Why, even Advani has been immaculately dressed always – and so are others. But yes, Modi’s emphasis on detail does demonstrate an obsession with his looks.
You write that Modi started attending the local Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh(RSS) shakha at the age of six. How did that influence his development as an individual?
The Bal Shakhas he attended were merely catchment areas for the RSS when it was recovering from the setback from the ban after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. The groups were collected every evening when they gathered for the Maha Gujarat programmes and the Shakhas were mainly play exercises. There was little politics but a sense of discipline was instilled in these shakhas. Modi’s elder brother told me that he was influenced with this and the concept of a hierarchical organisation. It stayed on and is the main reason for his emphatic and autocratic ways.
Does the way he operates now have a lot to do with all the years that he has spent in the RSS, first as a child and then as an adult?
When I asked him how he made a transition to becoming chief minister without ever having been a minister or an elected representative at any level, Modi told me that he learnt the basic skills of running an organisation in the RSS. While this is true, there are also several traits of Modi that have not come from the Sangh – his primness for instance. Within the RSS the biggest question that should have been raised was after his marriage and the episode stemming from it, became public knowledge. RSS Pracharaks were not allowed to marry but he became one despite being married. This means he hid the information. But no action was taken – the only one could have been his expulsion. The RSS leadership never addressed this question. Probably Modi became very powerful with patrons in right places and so he was protected. Modi easily picked up those qualities from the RSS which would assist him later in life. But whenever certain norms necessitated personal sacrifice and dumbing down of the self, Modi was a reluctant activist.
What made him leave home at the young age of 18?
He told me he did not wish to speak about those years of absence – that he will write someday about what he did. But we can draw inferences. He was married early to a girl he did not know but it was part of a 3-stage process with the ‘gauna’ being the last one. After the second stage was over and he realised what marriage was all about and how it would pin him down to his village, he chose to avoid ‘gauna’ and went away. I spent considerable time, energy and resources to see if his disappearance had any links to the communal riots of 1969 but found none. The closest he came to telling me was that at times, he would go to Rama Krishna Mission and to the Vivekananda Ashram in Almora. Throughout Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary year, I followed his utterances and tweets on the seer. I found them steeped with romanticism – not scholarly or articulating a polemical viewpoint. The standard argument that Vivekananda was the torch-bearer of Hindu in the west and thus should be respected. On his recent visit to Kolkata, he visited Belur Match and also the room where the Swami spent time meditating.
He returned home at the age of 21 in 1971 and then never came back to Vadnagar except for just a few hours when his father was on his deathbed in 1989. He returned again only in 1999 for the golden jubilee celebrations of his school. What does it tell us about Modi as an individual?
Modi’s world comprises I, Me and Myself. He is the centre of the universe, always. When he came back at 21, he had already fixed up something in Ahmedabad. It was an escape from a small village and the possibility of having to cohabit with a girl he clearly did not like. It is very difficult to meet his siblings unless one lives for considerable lengths in Gujarat. Even regarding his mother, Modi allows photo shoots on his birthdays when he goes for blessings and during religious occasions like Dushhera. His brother, Pankaj who is employed with the state information department was to accompany me to Vadnagar, but called in sick at the last minute and that was the last I heard about him. In any case, I knew that the awe of Modi was so great, that no one especially his siblings – would say anything negative. Even political adversaries were guarded in their statement.
He was the second RSS pracharak to be deputed from the RSS to the BJP after KN Govindacharya. How did it shape him as an individual?
Modi said two very important things about his final deputation to the BJP. Firstly, in regard to when exactly it happened, he said there are no fixed dates as the RSS does not issue office orders – things happen, informally and then formally. The second revelation is that even before his formal move to the BJP, he had played a key role in the revival of the electoral fortunes of the BJP in Ahmedabad when he shepherded the campaign for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in 1986. Coming just a year after the rout following Indira Gandhi’s assassination it restored a semblance of confidence in the party and resulted in the party’s national leaders seeing the obvious talents of Modi. Advani played a key role in his elevation and he consulted with the top RSS brass before taking on Modi and before him K N Govindacharya as his political secretary.
How has the relationship between LK Advani and Narendra Modi evolve? What do you think is the status now? Does Advani still consider Modi to be his protege? Or is Advani still in the race for PM?
I went to gift Advani a copy of my book and it was evident he liked it as an idea. But he refused to be drawn into a comment on either Modi, current politics or even what he felt about the fact that I had written this book. He told me that all his utterances become controversial. He reiterated that the Parivar does not get offended if a junior member does very well. But then over the past few years, Advani had problems with even the RSS top brass over their suggestion that he call it a day and take on the role of a political mentor. Advani mentored Modi and the two remained close for a long period of time before Modi switched allegiance to the Murli Manohar Joshi camp. Modi made a return to the Advani camp when Vajpayee was PM. Advani lobbied for Modi getting the job (that of the Gujarat CM) and then saved him after the 2002 riots. But after the Jinnah comments, he became a liability for Modi and now with Modi’s rise, till the time Advani does not call it a day, his supporters will think of Modi as the usurper.
You write “If the Godhra incident had not ocuccured…in all probability there would have been no need to write this biography.” Why do you say that?
Modi is a ultimate manifestation of extreme communalisation of India. Modi won his assembly seat in a by-election after becoming CM but the BJP lost other seats in the same by-poll. This was just days before the Godhra carnage. Clearly the BJP was floundering and the government machinery was still moribund. Godhra and the riots changed it all. Modi realised that his time had come. Godhra did not happen because tourists were killed. This was a train load of VHP activists. The chain simple – No Godhra, no Modi. No Ayodhya – No Godhra. If Godhra had not happened, BJP would have lost the assembly polls due in February 2003. And Modi would have been part of history by now.
What do you make of the statement that Modi made after the incident: kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai? Why has he kept endorsing the post Godhra violence?
A political leader like Modi sees himself as a product to be merchandised by use of multiple tactics. In this process of selling, the USP has to be put upfront. Modi realised after the Godhra carnage that given the latent communalisation within Gujarat, there was bound to be a reaction. Instead of using force to quell violence and thereby allow detractors within the Sangh Parivar to weaken him, he chose to justify in the manner he did to the Zee reporter. It was not the reporter’s scoop. It was Modi’s scoop – he chose the vehicle that he felt would best deliver his message to his constituency. Modi knows how to toy with the media. Even now he does not express remorse in the Congress style ‘I am sorry’ or use Advani-type ‘saddest day’ words because if he does, he will upset his core constituency and this is something he cannot risk. How he balances this with the rest is the key question and I am eager to track this over the next few months.
There has been a lot of criticism of Modi over the years. But he still manages to win elections and people love him. How do you manage to explain that disconnect?
He wins because of his strategy of further communalising Gujarat and being able to coerce large sections of the Muslims to accept his hegemony has succeeded. Most Hindus who were surveyed by CSDS in 2003 said that the riots were necessary to teach a lesson to read Muslims. The more one criticises Modi, the more shrill noises are made by his adversaries, the more he benefits. In 2007, when he was shaky initially, Sonia Gandhi made the “Maut Ka Saudagar” comments and with that kissed the chances of the Congress goodbye. In 2012, the Congress never had a plan, they just hoped that Keshubhai would damage. He did and this was why Modi did not the 125-plus verdict he wanted.
When it comes to actual governance how good is Modi? The businessmen just seem to love him. Why is that?
There is no doubt that Modi is an efficient manager. He is quick on the uptake and has innate ability to make someone else’s knowledge his own. This includes his officers and people he interacts with – even those who come to seek something. He selects a good team of officers. He is a voracious reader and spends considerable time surfing the Internet looking for new ideas and then interact with subject experts. This has enabled him to initiate action in areas about which he knew little before – for instance rural electrification. Industrialists love him because Modi’s a single window operation. All ministers are either pygmies or rubber stamps. All decisions are taken by Modi. Even the basic decision on whether an appointment is to be given to someone who called, is taken by the man himself. Since industry leaders know that the decision is in the hands of just one man, they are happy dealing with Gujarat and it makes their task easier and the red tape easy to overcome.
One thing that comes out in the book is that Modi has fallen out (or even moved on from) with a lot of people who he was once close to. Sanjay Joshi, Haren Pandya, Gordhan Zadaphia, Keshubhai Patel, KN Govindracharya, S Gurumurthy and even LK Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi for that matter. What do you think would be reasons for the same?
Modi has not been a team man. If you look at this trajectory after the early years, he could never accept the presence of equals – he can only be captain. His unapologetic ambition has been the primary reason why he fell out with a large number of associates. He also changed sides effortlessly without any qualms whenever he felt the move would benefit him.
Is he sitting lonely at the top?
I asked him about him being lonely. He laughed saying that he liked loneliness. When I had probed further – if he had friends, he said his work left him with no time for friends. In a way it is true – he is a workaholic. But, the flip side is that he makes even close associates very insecure and so no one dares trying to befriend him. It is actually lonely at the top.
Do you think Modi will ever be able to get rid of the Godhra blot? How important is it for him to do that inorder to be a serious PM candidate in 2014? Or is Delhi still far away for him?
What is a blot to one section is also a certificate of commendation for the other group. I do not think Modi will ever say that what happened in the aftermath of the Godhra carnage was wrong and that his government should have been more vigilant. If he says anything like that I will be surprised. If he does, it will make him go the way Advani has gone – apologetic of his Ayodhya past, praising Jinnah and now saying that the BJP must provide a minimum guarantee to minorities. I used Nizamuddin Aulia’s words – Hunooz, Dehli Door Ast (Delhi is still far away) to argue that it was still a long way to go for the polls.
Will be get the necessary allies?
I had asked Modi about the number of dwindling allies. He argued that if the BJP’s winnability increased, allies would automatically come. He said they had more allies when they were on the winning curve but they started deserting when the ship began sinking. If it becomes afloat again, other would jump in. It is with grave risk that one should indulge in crystal ball gazing. But if the situation does not alter dramatically within BJP, and in other parties – including Congress – I see little chance of any party naming their prime ministerial candidates. The next election will in all likelihood see post-poll alliances determining who will head the next government. Modi’s chances will depend on the number of seats the BJP wins.
And finally do you think 2014 will be Rahul v/s Modi?
No I do not think it will be sort of presidential race. And as far as their support is concerned, if polls are held today, Modi will prove to be a better draw than Rahul.
The interview originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 15, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)