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This way to Delhi: From RSS pracharak to PM-designate, Narendra Modi has come a long way

Chai pe Charcha programmes were organised to help Modi’s beginnings as a 'tea vendor'.

Written by Hiral Devrajbhai Dave , Lakshmi Ajay , with input from Satish Jha | Updated: May 18, 2014 12:01 pm

In August 2011, Narendra Modi had called up his friend in London and asked him, “So tell me, are the London riots still on?” “Yes,” the young friend replied. The riots had broken out on August 5, 2011, and lasted nearly a week. “Then why am I being targeted,” Modi is said to have asked this friend, who spoke to The Sunday Express on condition of anonymity.

If Modi was indeed anguished then, he bounced back fast. A month later, the Supreme Court said it would not monitor the case filed against him by Zakia Jafri, the widow of riot victim and former MP Ehsan Jafri, and Modi announced his Sadbhavana Mission, a series of fasts that were to be his bid to reach out to minorities. During his fast inside the airconditioned Gujarat University Convention Centre, as Narendra Modi posed for photographs with burqa-clad Muslim women, outside, BJP women members sat with foolscap notebooks, running a signature campaign for ‘Modi as PM’.

A top BJP leader says, “Though whispers that Modi was in the prime ministerial race began in the corridors of the Chief Minister’s Office as early as January 2008, a couple of weeks after Modi won his second term, it was only after the Supreme Court-appointed SIT gave him a clean chit in the riot cases when that it picked pace.”

Modi then got down to revamping the machinery around him — largely independent of the BJP — and reinvented his own image from that of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ to that of an investor-friendly CEO-CM of a ‘progressive state’, whose government was ‘inclusive’ and ‘development-driven’.

In December 2011, Modi spotted Prashant Kishor, a 36-year-old former UN Mission Chief in Africa and roped him into his core team. Kishor, who is from Bihar, fit into Modi’s need for a technocrat who would help him reach out to hostile political terrains such as Bihar. Kishor founded the NGO Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) and gave a youthful touch to the Modi campaign by bringing in an army of IIT and IIM graduates who quit plush MNC jobs to join the Modi backroom.

Apart from conventions to connect with the youth, CAG helped organise Chai pe Charcha programmes across the country to firmly found Modi’s beginnings as a “tea vendor”.

As part of the plan, Modi retained his trusted bureaucrat Kuniyil Kailashnathan (popularly called KK) after he retired last year by appointing him principal chief secretary in the CMO to look after the administrative affairs of the government. KK had been rewarded for playing a key part in Modi’s image-building exercise. KK’s role for more than seven years in the CMO had been to bring the government and industry together. He was the man in charge of the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investor Summit (VGGIS), Modi’s flagship event that made the outside world take note of the ‘Gujarat model’ and helped build Modi’s CEO image. At these summits, industry biggies such as Anil Ambani, Shashi Ruia and Anand Mahindra endorsed Modi as a national leader.

KK had also facilitated a meeting between Modi and former Supreme Court Justice V R Krishna Iyer, who had headed the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal that probed and indicted the Modi government for its alleged role in the 2002 riots. Last year, Justice Iyer had given a written testimonial endorsing Modi as worthy of leading the country.

Saurabh Patel, Energy and Petrochemicals Minister who has worked with Modi for a decade, says, “He gives full powers to the ministers, but within the policy framework. He gives utmost importance to policies to provide transparency and efficiency.” Calling Modi the best human resources manager, Patel said, “He can work very hard. But he keeps in mind the potential and interest of his ministers and officers. In all these years, I have never seen him lose his temper or raise his voice. He prefers silence.”

Ravindra Desai, 69, a close associate of Modi during his pracharak days in Panchmahal and Vadodara in 1975-80 and a retired schoolteacher, recalls how Modi was a keen pracharak himself. “He never spoke of politics in the long conversations we had at the Swaminayaran Mandir in Derol (Panchmahal) where I lived. We discussed everything from our personal lives to issues in the country at that time”. Desai says his was one of the two homes that Modi stayed at when in Panchmahal and that he would often ride pillion on Modi’s Vespa.

He recalls how, during the Emergency, Modi had disguised himself as a Sikh to evade arrest. “Sanghis had told us that if a Sardarji comes knocking on our door, we should let him in, but he never came to my house in that disguise,” says Desai.

Modi’s marriage to Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi in 1968, when he was barely 18, was not known to many of his RSS colleagues. Desai’s wife Yogini says, “He was like our family member. When I was pregnant with our son, Narendrabhai told me that if it is a boy, I should make him a swayamsevak. I did not know Narendrabhai was married because we assumed that all Sanghis were single.”

Kaushik Mehta, Gujarat president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who has also worked closely with Modi, says, “He has three main qualities — he loves technology, is a one-man army and is very hard working.” Mehta says it is Modi’s pracharak background that gave him the energy to do 400-plus rallies this general election.

To Kanubhai Bhavsar, Modi’s school teacher in Vadnagar, he is ‘Narendra’, the boy-hero. “He was brave. We would all swim to the temple in the middle of Sharmistha lake which had 40 crocodiles. Once Narendra brought home a baby crocodile. Even I did. They were like chameleons. We would dig them out and put them in a vessel filled with water at home,” he had told The Sunday Express.
Modi has always claimed to be single, without a family to distract him. But even before Modi named Jashodaben as his wife in his nomination papers, his brothers had jumped into the political arena, campaigning for him.

Somabhai Modi, 71, a retired government official who runs an old-age home in Vadnagar, turned out in a crisp suit and rooted for his brother during a 20-minute talk on ‘What India needs in 2014’ at the Delhi University’s Law Faculty in North Campus. Since then, he has held meetings with a cross-section of people, particularly among the OBC voters, to garner support for Modi in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Varanasi. When Modi declared Jashodaben as his spouse for the first time in his affidavit in April,  Somabhai promptly issued a clarification, saying it was a child marriage and a ‘formality’.

Prahlad Modi, Modi’s youngest sibling, is a recent convert to his more famous brother’s PM aspirations. Prahlad is vice-president of the Association of Fair Price Shop Owners in Gujarat and has had his share of verbal duels with Modi. Prahlad has in the past gone to the media to hit out at Modi, saying that ration shop owners of Gujarat were being ignored and that they should be granted the status of government employees.

On Friday, in the midst of celebrations that were on since morning at his son’s office in Bapunagar, he said, “In his 14-year rule, we (family) have led our lives in a way so that his position remains untainted. We will continue doing so. In all these years, I have only met him three times and that too by appointment for my Fair Price Union; not as a brother.”

Pankaj, the youngest of the Modi brothers, with whom their mother Hiraba lives in Gandhinagar, works with the Gujarat government’s information department whose minister is Modi himself. He also took time off work to campaign for his brother.

But Modi, who has never acknowledged his family, has repeatedly said in public that barring the “six crore Gujaratis”, he has no family. So for now, the family will stay back and watch as he heads for South Block.


January 2007: At the 3rd Vibrant Gujarat Investors’ Summit, industry honchos endorse him for a larger national role

September 12, 2011: Supreme Court stops monitoring case against Modi filed by Zakia Jafri

December 2013: SIT gives clean chit to Modi

September 17, 2011: Modi launches Sadbhavana mission fasts

December 26, 2012: Modi sworn in as CM after leading BJP to second straight victory in assembly elections

September 13, 2013: BJP declares Modi its prime ministerial candidate

April 11, 2014: SC refuses to entertain plea questioning the clean chit to Modi

May 16, 2014: BJP emerges as the single largest party in an election powered by Modi

(Inputs from Satish Jha and Aditi Raja)

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