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)
Having grown up on a staple of bad Hindi cinema of the seventies and the eighties, I have always associated people with ‘French’ beards as being villanious. Indeed, this is a stereotype of the worst kind, which I have been unable to get rid off.
But now comes the news that a Delhi court has set aside the closure report of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Jagdish Tytler, in connection with the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and ordered that the case against him be reopened. For those who don’t know, Tytler has had a rather impressive French beard, over the years.
Tytler along with many fellow Congressmen took an active part in inciting the anti-Sikh riots that happened in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of the country, being assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on the morning of October 31, 1984.
As Tavleen Singh writes in Durbar “Mrs Gandhi (Indira) had set out of her house at about 9 a.m. And was walking through her garden towards her office, in a bungalow that adjoined her house, when her Sikh bodyguard, Beant Singh, greeted her with his hands joined together. Then he shot her with his pistol. Another bodyguard, Satwant Singh, opened fire with his automatic weapon.”
Gandhi was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) by her daughter in law Sonia, where she was declared dead.
Indira’s son Rajiv was sworn in as the Prime Minister in the evening of the same day. As Singh writes “We watched him on television. In a calm, emotionless voice, he said India had lost a great leader. Someone who was not just his mother but the mother of the country, or words to that effect. Then he stopped and stared sadly at the camera while Doordarshan showed shots of H.K.L. Bhagat (another Congress leader) and his supporters beating their breasts and shouting, ‘Khoon ka badlka khoon se lenge.’ Blood will be avenged with blood.”
In the environment that evovled the entire community of Sikhs were held responsible for the murder of Indira Gandhi. By the evening of October 31, the violence started. As Ramachandra Guha writes India After Gandhi – The History of World’s Largest Democracy “Everywhere it was Sikhs and Sikhs alone who were the target…In Delhi alone more than a thousand Sikhs perished in the violence…They were murdered by a variety of methods, and often in front of their own mothers and wives. Bonfires were made of the bodies; in one case, a little child was burnt with his father, the perpetrator saying, ‘Ye saap ka bachcha hai, isse bhi khatam karo’ (This offspring of a snake must be finished too).”
And this was not a spontaneous outflow of grief as it would be made out to be. It was mob-violence that was directed at the Sikh community in a cold and calculated way. “The mobs were composed of Hindus who lived in and around Delhi…Often they were led and directed by Congress politicians: metropolitan councillors, members of Parliament, even Union ministers. The Congress leaders promised money and liquor to those willing to do the job; this in addition to whatever goods they could loot. The police looked on, or actively aided the looting and murder.”
Jagdish Tytler was seen inciting one such mob around Gurdwara Pul Bangash near the Azad market in Delhi. Surinder Singh, the Head Granthi of the Gurdwara testified against Tytler on sworn affidavits. “On 1st November 1984 in the morning at 9am a big mob which was carrying sticks, iron rods and kerosene oil attacked the Gurdwara. The crowd was being led by our area Member Parliament of Congress (I) Jagdish Tytler. He incited the crowd to set the Gurdwara on fire and to kill the Sikhs…Five to six policemen were also with the crowd. On incitement by Jagdish Tytler, they attacked the gurdwara and set it on fire.” (Source: Tehelka).
And while Delhi burnt on those first few days of November 1984, Rajiv Gandhi and his ministers, sat on their bums watching the whole show unfold. Senior leaders approached the government to call out the army on the streets. But nothing happened. As Singh writes “But the new Prime Minister did nothing. Not even when senior political leaders like Chandrashekar and (Mahatma) Gandhiji’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, went to the home minister(P V Narsimha Rao) personally to urge him to call out the army for help was anything done in those first three days of November to stop the violence.”
This is something that Guha also writes in India After Gandhi. “There is a large cantonment in Delhi itself, and several infantry divisions within a radius of fifty miles of the capital. The army was put on standby, despite repeated appeals to the prime minister and his home minster P.V.Narsimha Rao, they were not asked to move into action. A show of military strength in the city on the 1st and 2nd would have quelled the riots – yet the order never came.” Doordarshan, the only television channel in the country at that point of time, added fuel to fire by constantly showing crowds baying for the blood of the Sikhs.
A few week’s later in a public speech Rajiv Gandhi justified the pogrom(basically an organised massacre of a particular ethnic group) against Sikhs when he said “When a big tree falls, the earth trembles!”. Years later Sher Singh Sher, a Chandigarh based Sikh made the quip “Were there only Sikhs sitting under that tree?” (Source: The Tribune) Gandhi in several speeches in the months to come even alleged that the same extremist elements who had killed his mother had also engineered the riots.
Rajiv Gandhi like his mother was assassinated seven years later in 1991. Since then the Congress party has moved on and is now in the hands of his widow Sonia and their son Rahul. In December 2007, Sonia Gandhi, called Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat “maut ka saudagar”.
The irony behind Sonia’s statement was that the Congress party had many maut ke saudagars who had gone unpunished for instigating the riots of 1984. It was a situation of the pot calling the kettle black. But that doesn’t mean that nothing happened in Gujarat.
Sonia’s statement was made in the context of the riots that happened in Gujarat in 2002, where more than 2000 Muslims were killed. The riots happened after bogey number S6 of the Sabarmati Express caught fire on February 27,2002, on the outskirts of the Godhra railway station. Fifty eight people died in the fire. The bogey had kar sevaks returning from a yagna in Ayodhya.
As Guha points out “On their way back home by train , these kar sevaks got into a fight with Muslim vendors at the Godhra railway station…Words of the altercation spread; young men from the Muslim neighbourhood outside the station joined in. The kar sevaks clambered back into the train, which started moving as stones were being thrown. However, the train stopped on the outskirts of the station, when a fire broke out in one of its coaches. Fifty eight people perished in the conflagration…Word that a group of kar sevaks had been burnt to death at Godhra quickly spread through Gujarat. A wave of retributory violence followed.”
In fact the behaviour of Modi in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots was very similar to that of Rajiv Gandhi. He justified the violence, like Rajiv Gandhi had, as a spontaneous reaction. He said that the burning of the railway coach at Godhra had led to a ‘chain of action and reaction’.
(The original statement of Modi was in Hindi and was made to Zee News:
Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahte hain ki na kriya ho aur na pratikriya…Godhra main jo parson hua, jahan par chalees mahilaon aur bacchon ko zinda jala diya, issey desh main aur videsh main sadma pahunchna swabhavik tha. Godhra ke is ilake ke logon ki criminal tendencies rahi hain. In logon ne pehle mahila tachers ka khoon kiya. Aur ab yeh jaghanya apraadh kiya hai jiski pratikriya ho rahi hai. (A chain of action and reaction is being witnessed now.We feel that there should be no action nor reaction. Day before yesterday in Godhra, the incident in which forty women and children were burnt alive had to naturally evoke a shocking response in the country and abroad. The people in this locality of Godhra have had criminal tendencies. They first killed the women teachers and now this horrifying crime the reaction to which is being witnessed). Source: Narendra Modi – The Man. The Times by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay).
Guha finds man similarities between the two pogroms, the one against the Sikhs of Delhi in 1984, and the one against the Muslims of Gujarat in 2002. Both the cases started with stray acts of violence for which a generalised revenge was taken. “The Sikhs who were butchered were in no way connected to the Sikhs who killed Mrs Gandhi. The Muslims who were killed by the Hindu mobs were completely innocent of the Godhra crime,” writes Guha.
In both the cases there was a clear breakdown of law and order. More than that graceless statements justifying the riots, were made, one by a serving Prime Minister and another by a serving Chief Minister. And in both the cases, serving ministers, aided the rioters.
But its the final similarity between the two different sets of events that is the most telling, feels Guha. “Both parties, and leaders, reaped electoral rewards from the violence that they had legitimised and overseen. Rajiv Gandhi’s party won the 1984 general election by a large margin, and in December 2002, Narendra Modi was re-elected as the chief minister of Gujarat after his party won a two-thirds majority in the assembly polls,” Guha points out. Modi, the first RSS pracharak to become a chief minister, has won two more polls since then.
To conclude, if justice had been quickly delivered in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the Congress leaders who instigated the violence had been jailed, chances are the 1993 Mumbai riots and 2002 Gujarat riots would never have happened. And if they had, they would have happened on a much smaller scale. The original maut ke saudagars of 1984 set the tone for much of what followed.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 11, 2003.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)