Narendra Modi turned 68 on September 17. He probably has no time to pause and think about his life as it has unfolded over these years. Take it in four parts of 17 years each.
The first 17 years are at home with the family, going to school, being tied up in an arranged marriage. But then he leaves the worldly life. Inspired by his hero Swami Vivekananda, with whom he shares his name, he wants to dedicate himself to Ramakrishna Mission. They tell him he is not for that sort of life. So he joins the RSS. The next 17 years are spent learning to be a dedicated, humble swayamsevak. He is active in the Emergency, donning disguises and helping the struggle for freedom from Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship. He gets political experience.
The next 17 years see him taking on responsible tasks in the RSS. He is a pracharak and works for the BJP behind the scenes. These are the years when the BJP is trying to come up from its lowest score of two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984. This is also his period of self-education, travel abroad and getting good with cyber tech. He is beginning to get noticed.
The 17 years from 2001 to 2018 are dramatic. From a pracharak, he is ordered to become the chief minister of Gujarat. Immediately, he crashes, with the Godhra incident and the riots of 2002. Anyone else’s career would have ended there and then. But he survives and goes on to win three terms. By 2012, it is clear that the BJP is back in the doldrums at the Centre after having ruled between 1998 and 2004, but having lost two elections. He is 62; where next?
To be India’s prime minister is an ambition many politicians have had. But you need a long apprenticeship for that unless you are from the Nehru family. Indira Gandhi became the youngest prime minister at 48 after just about 18 months in the Cabinet. Rajiv Gandhi did better by getting there at 40. Both these events however were preceded by tragic deaths of the incumbent prime minister. Only V P Singh managed it at 58 in normal times. The median age for Indian prime ministers is 64. Modi managed to get there at just hundred odd days short of 64.
What are the prospects for the next 17 years? If the BJP/NDA wins in 2019 convincingly, Modi will be the prime minister. He can then equal the record of Jawaharlal Nehru and Manmohan Singh by serving a consecutive second term of five years. In 2024, he will be 74. This is just one year short of where the RSS has drawn the line. He could be tempted to prove the RSS wrong and try for a third term. If he was to challenge Nehru’s record of 17 years successfully, he would be 81 years old, the age at which Morarji Desai became Prime Minister, 17 years after his first try.
But politics is a cruel sport. Most people expected Atal Bihari Vajpayee to renew his tenure as prime minister in 2004 as Rajiv Gandhi must have hoped in 1989. Modi cannot rely on his good fortune but only hope that inshallah the Indian voter will be kind to him.