Photo: India Today Archive

LAST WEEK, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was hit by a curious contradiction. He notched a milestone victory for himself yet shot himself in the foot at the same time. For a man who has striven hard for a solo spot in the sun, Modi must be kicking himself for hyphenating his name with his bête noire Sanjay Joshi at the precise moment of his own clear rise within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But in a pattern that seems to repeat itself in his life, the path he chose to success may end up being his worst impediment.

For several years, the BJP has been having a bitter internal tussle for power along several arterial lines. There’s been a vertical fight for control between the party and its ideological mentor, the RSS. There’s been a horizontal fight for leadership between the older party guard, especially LK Advani, and the younger leaders. And there’s been heavy politicking within the party for the top spot — the prime ministerial candidacy — that’s not been filled since Atal Bihari Vajpayee vacated it. (As a journalist joked on television, the party has been fighting for the byline even before it has written the story. To which a BJP wit replied, “That’s because the authors lie outside the party.”)

Last fortnight, at the high-voltage BJP national executive meet in Mumbai, on the face of it, Modi, 61, forced answers onto many of these questions. Despite his many faux pas, the RSS wanted their man Nitin Gadkari to have an unprecedented second term as party president. To accommodate this, the BJP had to amend its constitution. As a powerful member of the executive, Modi’s consent was needed. Modi, however, had been on a prolonged and very public sulk ever since Gadkari had rehabilitated Joshi into the party fold and placed him in charge of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. By insisting now that Joshi — a strong RSS man — first be sacked from the executive before he would deign to attend the meeting, Modi seemed to have shown the RSS its place and sloughed off its control. He also stopped Joshi from taking a train ride through Gujarat and forced him to fly back to Delhi, to pre-empt his showcasing his angry supporters from station-stop to stationstop. For many party well-wishers — hungry for the BJP to reinvent itself as a right-ofcentre party not latched to a regressive communal agenda — these assertions would have seemed a significant emancipation.

Certainly when Modi walked into the hall in Mumbai, it seemed all the leadership questions — horizontal and vertical — had been sorted out. The crowds roared for their “Gujarat ka sher” and the entire leadership came down from the dais to escort him on stage. Like the others, Gadkari walked a step behind. (There is a theory that RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat had allowed Modi to stage this victory so that the Gadkari-Modi partnership would become the new power centre, forge a new sense of unity and cement both Parivar and party.)

However, barely a few hours later, all of this started to implode. A clearly upset Advani and Sushma Swaraj left the meet early and went back to Delhi. The next day, Advani wrote his famous blog criticising Gadkari and asking the party to introspect. Before the sizzle of this could die down, in a barely veiled attack on Modi, the BJP mouthpiece Kamal Sandesh and RSS journal Panchajanya wrote scathing editorials about leaders who were in too much of a hurry, who thought they were above the sanctity of the organisation, who felt “only their will should be honoured and no one should command but me”; who forget that “as they go up the ladder, their thoughts must elevate too”; and who have a false sense of invincibility. Quick on the heels of this, another Sangh Parivar mouthpiece, the Organiser, wrote yet another editorial, praising Modi as “by far the most popular leader in the country” and as the only BJP leader who could catapult the party to power as Vajpayee had done in the 1990s.

Modi’s rise has not only set fire to the BJP, it has even put a cleaver through the highly closed and ideologically tightknit ranks of the Parivar

Then on 5 June, a few billboards came up anonymously at strategic locations in Delhi and Gujarat, plastered with photographs of Joshi and the slogan — Dil se bolo, Sanjay Joshi phir se — couplets from Vajpayee’s poems, questions about the BJP’s sense of justice, which promotes one leader by asking for the resignation of others, and scorn about such “dadagiri”. A coup had been effected. The Modi-Joshi rivalry became the top news story, eclipsing the rise of Modi. Joshi was suddenly almost as well-known a name as Modi in many parts of the country.

All of this brings an astonishing set of firsts. Modi’s rise — and the manner in which he engineered it — has not only set fire to the BJP, parting it through the middle and making the battlelines clear; it has even put a cleaver through the highly closed and ideologically tight-knit ranks of the Sangh Parivar, outing its differences like never before.

RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav laughs heartily when asked for an assessment of the situation, or even his opinion on what makes Modi both so coveted and polarising a leader within the party. “I have nothing to say on him,” he says. “It’s all out there to see. The media can say what they want, but ultimately it’s the voters who will decide.”

Other BJP leaders are more unequivocal. One senior partyman says, “It’s a very turbulent time for the BJP. I don’t blame Nitin Gadkari for the mess. He’s just trying to keep everyone happy. Personally, he has nothing against Joshi but if he had not requested him to leave, he’d have been held responsible for an even bigger dissidence within the party. Narendrabhai is a very able administrator but he has to understand there have been as able chief ministers as him within the BJP.”

Drawing blood in both directions, another partyman close to Advani says, clearly indicating the hierarchy as that camp sees it, “The problem is not Modi or Gadkari. Advaniji and Narendrabhai have always shared a guru-shishya relationship. Advaniji has treated him as a protégé throughout his life and seen to it that he remains unscathed. Whether it was the 2002 riots or the Haren Pandya murder investigation, he has always shielded Modi from the tough questions.”

Sanjay Joshi
Bête noire Sanjay Joshi has been sidelined after a long-running spat with Modi, Photo: Pramod Adhikari

The Sangh’s interference, he continues, is the real root of the problem. “The Sangh has to make up its mind and let the party function. Advaniji was not against the removal of Joshi per se, the point he disliked was the Parivar bowing down to the diktats of one leader. Advaniji walked out not in the face of Modi or Gadkari but in the face of the RSS. There’s too much hypocrisy now. If they don’t want (BS) Yeddyurappa as Karnataka chief minister because he’s corrupt, then why not use the same yardstick for Gadkari, who was responsible for bringing in both (Babu Singh) Kushwaha (the sacked BSP minister accused of massive corruption in the Uttar Pradesh National Rural Health Mission scam) and Anshuman Mishra (a controversial moneybags man) into the party. Modi has become arrogant today as a result of this hypocrisy.”

An RSS man close to Joshi says, “Many leaders who supported Modi earlier have now become aware of his true colours. When you join the RSS, you are supposed to dedicate yourself to the Sangh. But what did Modi do? Many pracharaks feel this time his arrogance should be given a befitting reply.”

Suresh Mehta, former Gujarat chief minister and a key Modi detractor, confirms this. “The RSS unit in Gujarat in toto is against him, from the prant pracharak to the lowest worker. Modi has broken the Sangh; broken the party. He has raised his own personal stake so high, he has decimated the party structures. He is a vengeful man who can go to any lengths; everyone may not voice this openly but no one likes what’s going on.”

For Modi, these open declarations of hostility are perhaps only one end of the worry. For a man who has always been the master of the banner headline, the broadstroke message, the brand positioning, this episode has also brought some other subtler but possibly far-reaching diminishments. Modi understands the positive economies of scale. Reviled or admired, he has always been described in highly-charged, larger-than-life terms: “Fascist monster”, “mass murderer”, “Hindutva fanatic”, if you have been a critic or victim of his purges. And “Loh Purush” (Iron Man), “Vikas Purush” (Development Man), “Hindu Hriday Samrat” (Emperor of Hindu Hearts), keeper of Gujarati Asmita (pride); “unstoppable horse” or “CEO CM”, if you have been an admirer.

Mass appeal Modi has fanatic followers in Gujarat but India is a different story, Photo: AP

Now, with his pique against Joshi so blatantly out in the open, for the first time, new and much more reductive epithets are being ascribed to him: “BJP’s petty poster boy”; a man capable of small-time neighbourhood “dadagiri”. Ironically, in the long run, this down-notching of scale might dent him much more in the popular imagination than much more serious blows have done. It’s certainly given fresh wind to a growing section of dissidents back in his home state of Gujarat.

On the other hand, Modi’s larger-than-life persona — which has been the source of his towering popularity for some — may itself checkmate him in the time to come.

FOR SEVERAL YEARS, certain sections of India’s middle class, led most influentially and vocally by a group of big corporates, have been clamouring for Modi as prime minister. But Modi’s ascension to the race, let alone the victory, is clearly not going to be an easy one. His track record and personality — a complex cocktail of high intelligence, high ambition, high capacities, high efficiencies, high demagoguery, high vengefulness and high megalomania — pose many riddles, not just for the country and Indian democracy, but his party itself.

A political commentator sympathetic to Modi sums up the dilemmas dispassionately. “If there was an America-styled primary within the party today, Modi would win hands down. It seems clear that just as Congress will fight at least one election under Rahul Gandhi, the BJP needs to do one under Modi. The irony is that the party needs him, but can it really risk positioning him as the prime ministerial candidate for 2014? Doing this would immediately turn the election into a highly-polarised referendum on Modi rather than the UPA’s bad governance. His peer group within the party have many doubts about him, some driven by pure jealousy, some by genuine worry about his acceptability at a national level. But, waiting till 2019, may also make it too late.”

The commentator piles up other imponderables. Though Modi is acceptable to some allies such as the Akalis, AIADMK, JD(U) and Shiv Sena, they also secretly fear his leadership may help make BJP the senior party in their own states. Leaders like Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, will not risk allying with him at all. Modi’s capacity to build coalitions also remains suspect and untested. Other points of anxiety is the bad press he gets.

“It’s clear,” says the commentator, “that Modi will have to express regret over the 2002 riots at some point, but he has to wait till the final court judgments and hope they clear him completely. To express regret now would be a sign of weakness.

“In Gujarat itself,” he concludes, “Modi is the all-powerful CEO of the state. He is like a Chinese leader. He has completely centralised control. Files here do not go through 30 people, but five. He works through an efficient machinery of technocrats, empowering them and getting results. This is not a state government that tries to take everyone along. In fact, Modi has made his MLAs irrelevant. Figuratively, he could give you and me a ticket and make us win. He gets votes on his name. But the problem for him is, Gujarat is not India.”

‘Positioning him as the PM candidate would turn the 2014 election into a referendum on Modi rather than the UPA,’ says a political commentator

Gujarat is not India: this pithy phrase opens up several intriguing lines of enquiry. No other leader in recent memory has roused as much mixed reactions as Modi, so what about Gujarat helped make him such an intractably popular leader there for over a decade? If a China-style leader — with its connotations of authoritative and authoritarian rule — is not easily acceptable to the rest of India, what made it so coveted in Gujarat? And, if the first signals can be believed, why is that popularity starting to slip just a little now?

This December, Modi will face an election for his fourth term in the state. Several years ago, another political watcher close to Modi had told TEHELKA, “I don’t think he orchestrated the riots, but when he saw the public mood, he rode with it.” It’s a telling commentary on Modi that almost no one likes to speak on the record about him. But to say “he rode with the mood” is an even more revealing one. It captures in one line the incendiary speeches, the suspect political decisions, the destroyed police control room call records, the unattended calls for help, the police officers penalised for helping riot victims, the saffronised public prosecutors that activists and sections of the media, including TEHELKA, have been documenting and trying to get justice on for years. The final SIT report submitted recently may have said there is no legally prosecutable evidence against Modi, but this one line captures why then prime minister Vajpayee had said that Modi had failed in his “raj dharma” and should step down.

This story, however, did not set out to examine the rights and wrongs of the riots. What is intriguing is the political fallouts his utilitarian route to success at the time is now having for Modi. If he “rode the mood” in the early years of his term, he quickly realised its diminishing returns as the wash of public opinion caught up with him. He began to reinvent himself as a development man and, in his hunger for power, the Sangh Parivar — with all its affiliates — was completely sidelined.

As reputed psychologist Ashis Nandy, who had described Modi as a “textbook case of a fascist mind” way before he came to power, says, “Ironically, India may end up thanking Modi for something he never intended: the decimation of the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat.”

But it’s difficult to read how his uneasy relationship with the Parivar is really going to pan out for Modi. At one level, when Modi launched his Sadbhavana campaign last year — as part of his brand repositioning — many hardcore Parivar cadres began to feel they’d been had. They had zealously followed Modi and served the Hindutva cause when he needed them. Now, without any notice, the rules of the game were changing. As Suresh Mehta said, many from the family are determined to teach him a lesson.

But another veteran cautions against any easy summations. According to him, when the party came to power, the Parivar permeated every aspect of Gujarati life. It opened over 104 cells, positioning people in lawyers, doctors and trader associations, business federations, education committees, governing boards, co-operatives, et al. “All this definitely doesn’t run on guru dakshina,” he says, “I cannot say this as substantiated fact but you could say ideological affinities have been replaced by money control.” As Ashis Nandy would say, “Power is the best Rorschach test.”

Curiously though, none of the ethical blackouts Modi is capable of has alienated his peers as much as the character traits that precipitated the Joshi crisis last week. Clearly, Modi has never been a man who likes red marks in his personal book of accounts. A small incident offers interesting insights. In April 2004, then prime minister Vajpayee was to make an election speech at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad. As chief minister, Modi was responsible for the arrangements but, according to sources close to him at the time, he did not send out any buses. Instead he ordered such impenetrable security arrangements around the stadium, it did not just keep out potential hazards, it kept potential listeners away as well. When Vajpayee — accustomed to address oceanic crowds — landed at the airport, he was told no more than 500 people had gathered at the stadium. Mortified, he checked into a hotel while frantic calls were made from the Union home ministry to the state machinery. A few hours later, having made his speech to a hastily gathered crowd of a few thousand, Vajpayee turned to Modi as he was getting into his car and said with biting politeness in Hindi, “I’d heard a word from you could rustle up lakhs of people in Gujarat. Now I have seen your not saying a word can keep them away as well.” It’s the last time Vajpayee ever addressed a crowd in Gujarat.

Modi with BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi
Parivar upbringing Modi with BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi, Photo: Indian Express

(L to R) Modi with Kashiram Rana, Keshubhai Patel and Shankersinh Vaghela
Friends turned foes (L to R) Modi with Kashiram Rana, Keshubhai Patel and Shankersinh Vaghela, Photo: India Today Archive


But Modi had got what he wanted: he could put a black tick in the column against Vajpayee’s “raj dharma” remark. Even a casual enquiry about Modi in Gujarat yields many such stories of scores settled, of foes cut to size and friends used and thrown in his climb to power. There’s former BJP chief ministers Keshubhai Patel and Shankersinh Vaghela, with whom Modi had built the party ground up from 1987 as an RSS pracharak, but who he ruthlessly played against each other till he was himself installed as chief minister in 2001. There are men like Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia, VHP firebreathers who were useful tools in the communally charged era of 2002, but who have since been cast-off as embarrassing riff-raff. And Gordhan Zadaphia, Modi’s stridently communal home minister at the time of the riots, who has proved a similar inconvenience. Modi’s tiff with Joshi itself goes back a long way.

In the 1980s, Modi and Joshi — both RSS pracharaks — had been entrusted with building the party in the state. By 1995, along with Patel, Vagehla and Togadia, they had taken the party from 11 seats to 121. Patel, the senior-most leader among them, was made the chief minister. But Modi, jockeying for power, engendered so much distrust between Patel and Vaghela that Patel had to cede his seat to Suresh Mehta, a sort of compromise chief minister, and Modi was banished by Vajpayee to Delhi to prevent further trouble-making.

At this point, Joshi’s star began to rise. When Keshubhai Patel swung back as chief minister a second time in 1998, Joshi sided with him and resisted Modi’s return to Gujarat. Modi never forgave him for this. In 2005, a mysterious CD appeared with Joshi in compromising circumstances, and Joshi found himself in political exile. His rehabilitation under Gadkari last year as Uttar Pradesh election in-charge rekindled Modi’s ire, triggering their latest round of sabotage and counter sabotage.

With all of this now lying split wide open, very slowly but surely scorn has started to replace awe in Gujarat. Modi’s flashy individualism, always a thorn in the Parivar’s side, has begun to grate too hard now. Achyut Yagnik, a reputed intellectual and human rights activist, recounts how the head of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh recently said of Modi, “We are tired of both his sheel and his shaili; his brand of integrity and his style.”

NARENDRA MODI is a labyrinthine man. What you think of him depends on which cubicle of the labyrinth you meet him in. Fellow travellers who knew him in his youth remember an ambitious, hardworking but angular man. Modi was born into a low-caste Ghanchi family in the dusty small town of Vadnagar. His parents Damodardas and Heeraben Modi had six children; Modi was the third. Besides the small oil mill they ran, the family had a teashop. Modi joined a local RSS shakha when he was 8, but other than that he seems to have had an unremarkable childhood. When he was 13, according to custom, Modi was symbolically married to Jashodaben Chimanlal, a girl three years younger than him. However, when his parents brought his wife from her maternal home to formally conjugate the marriage, Modi left home in a huff, rejecting the marriage. He was around 20. (He has never acknowledged this episode in his life. In his official profile in the state Assembly, the box on marriage has been left a blank.)

(clockwise from top) with Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, J Jayalalithaa and Bal Thackeray
Support system Modi’s ambitions of becoming prime minister hinge on the number of allies he can draw into his corner; (clockwise from top) with Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, J Jayalalithaa and Bal Thackeray, Photos (clockwise from top): Fotocorp, AFP, AP, AFP

Making his way to Ahmedabad from Vadnagar, Modi worked in his uncle’s canteen for a while, then set up his own tea cart. This is when he got enlisted by the RSS. Though a staunch ideologue, it appears Modi always chafed against the collective discipline of the Sangh. An RSS pracharak, who had a room right next to his in Hedgewar Bhawan, remembers that he would express his rebellion in tiny ways. If the RSS rulebook required everyone to wear khakhi shorts with buttons, he would insist on a zip; if the rule was long-sleeve kurtas, he’d wear them short. His room always had the latest electronics, when everyone else’s was bare. Even then, Modi had an intense need to individuate himself.

Most people who write about Modi have to rely on the perceptions of others as Modi never agrees to meet anyone he thinks is critical of him. An anecdotal reconstruction of him though can make for a fascinating picture. His 20s and 30s were dedicated to a slow but steady rise through RSS ranks. People from that time remember him as an austere man, absorbed only in his work. “He is a very keen observer and learner,” says a veteran local journalist. “He would take a bus and travel to the furthest corners. There are hardly three political leaders left who know every constituency of the state like the back of their hand. He is one of them.”

Former cop IH Sayid, now chairman of the state Wakf Board and a BJP man, says, “Modiji always has correct, minute and complete information about everything going on in the state. He has his own network of people. I found that very impressive about him.”

According to bureaucrats, who talk only in whispers and always in complete anonymity, Modi started on a major makeover of himself once he became chief minister. He taught himself English. He had a room in the chief minister’s bungalow mirrored wall to wall and brought in a tutor. Today, if local political gossip is to be believed, he practices his speeches in this room and has employed a platoon of professionals to watch his every public speech and give him detailed feedback on his voice modulation and gestures. This team also monitors Modi’s image online, putting out positive stories, combating negative ones. The fact that the American firm APCO manages his overall brand is of course well-known.

Modi is a master of spectacle. This is a key aspect of his reinvention as a development icon and his hold over people’s imagination in Gujarat

Again if political gossip is to be believed, moving away from his spartan beginnings, Modi has a giant wardrobe. Over 350 kurtas, says a political opponent, and most of them stitched by Jade Blue (a premium tailor in Gujarat).

Through all this radical makeover, Modi has never tried to promote his family. His mother still lives in a one-room apartment; one of his brothers is a clerk at the Secratariat; another runs a fair price shop. This absence of family is part of Modi’s appeal for the middle class. It reaffirms his reputation for personal honesty and allows him to retain an aura of austere restraint, despite his many reinventions.

There are many other versions of Modi in the labyrinth. Corporates speak of his suave charm; political adversaries of his dexterity with the crossed sword; and police officers of his absolute ruthlessness. Almost all of them also speak of how one can get completely taken in by him at first. “I really thought he meant business when he first became chief minister,” says one officer. “He used to speak such a convincing language of governance and law enforcement.”

“God forbid he ever crosses the borders of Gujarat,” says suspended IAS officer Pradip Sharma, who was once close to Modi and has now been badly singed by him. “The whole nation will be fooled.”