Narendra Modi

India 2.0 — Part Two: We really must talk about Narendra

Part One: Will India finally stop disappointing everyone?
Part Two: We really must talk about Narendra
Part Three: A world power in waiting

Narendra Modi was born in 1950, the third child of six in a family from the small town of Vadnagar, in the state of Gujarat in western India which borders Pakistan. The family is of the Ghanchi caste, a member of the group categorized under law as Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The family was not poor; they ran a tea shop and a small oil mill. In his youth, Narendra and his brother ran a tea stall near the Vadnagar train station, later another tea stall with his uncle in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat. Narendra was schooled in Vadnagar, then earned an extramural degree in political science from Delhi University in 1978 and a master’s degree from Gujarat University in 1983.

In the tradition of his caste, Narendra was married at 13 to a bride of 10. But seven years later, when his wife was brought from her maternal home, he rejected the marriage. It is an episode Modi has never recognized and his official biography omits any mention of it. He did, however, have to acknowledge the existence of a wife when he filed his nomination papers for the 2014 election.

An explanation may lie in Modi’s early interest in Hindu mysticism, possibly stimulated by joining a local cell of the radical Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when he was eight years-old. He left home at 17 and for two years wandered the Himalayas, spending time at a variety of Hindu monasteries (ashrams). Modi subsequently took vows to become a “kar sevak” (militant) in the cause of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) and the establishment of Hindu primacy in India. These vows reportedly included celibacy.

The Political Modi

It was through the RSS that Modi entered politics. As an RSS volunteer, he earned a reputation for being both a staunch Hindutva ideologue and diligent worker, though he was also thought willful and undisciplined. As he rose through the BJP hierarchy, he travelled extensively throughout Gujarat acquiring a detailed knowledge of the state and a wide network that still stands him in good stead.

In 1987, Modi was appointed Organization Secretary for the BJP party in Gujarat, helping to build a strong base of BJP cadres in the state and devising the strategy which brought the party sufficient success to join a coalition government after the 1990 state elections and to win in 1995. That year, Modi was appointed National Secretary of the BJP in New Delhi and then General Secretary in 1998, putting him in a strong position to be the party’s choice for Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001.

The choice wasn’t arrived at without grief. It was Modi’s penchant for plotting and sowing distrust among the BJP leaders in Gujarat that had led to his being “banished” to New Delhi in 1995 by Prime Minister Vajpayee, to calm the waters in Gujarat — and to take advantage of Modi’s organizational skills at the national level. Ill-feeling also had kept him from making a return to Gujarat in 1998. Not until 2001, with the incumbent Chief Minister (Keshubhai Patel) in failing health and having lost several by-elections, was Modi’s road back to Gujarat finally open.

Modi is not a gentlemanly political opponent. Some saw his hand in Patel’s poor by-election results. He is suspected of working to damage the reputation of another political rival by arranging for the release of a CD showing him in compromising circumstances. And he took his revenge on Prime Minister Vajpayee by ensuring that an election rally for the PM in Ahmedabad was poorly attended: Vajpayee arrived to a virtually empty stadium.

Modi’s party political skills have been matched by a remarkable ability to ride the public mood. During the period of his rise to the premiership of Gujarat, three progressively more violent inter-communal riots took a deadly tool: 208 dead in 1987, 219 in 1990, 441 in 1992. Modi took full advantage to consolidate his position among Hindus and to enhance the BJP’s share of the vote.

When new riots erupted in Gujarat in 2002 shortly after he became Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi was still in the role of radical Hindu nationalist. A group of Hindu pilgrims on a train in Godhra had been attacked by Muslims and 59 burned to death when the train caught fire. In the ensuing riots, as many as 2000 people may have been killed. Modi’s culpability, it has been argued, was more political than legal. He neither denounced the violence nor intervened to stop it, but few believe he had actually counselled the murder of Muslims or the destruction of their mosques. It is the case, however, that Modi ordered the charred bodies to be paraded through Ahmedabad. This triggered the anti-Muslim pogrom. The Gujarat police did little to stop the carnage and it was not until the government in New Delhi despatched a contingent of a thousand soldiers that the killing ended.

In the aftermath, police officers who had helped the riot victims were punished. Police records were destroyed. The special investigation team (SIT) officially charged with looking into the matter and Modi’s role in it was not a judicial body but one staffed with Gujarati police officers who had every incentive to be economical with the truth. There seems little doubt evidence was suppressed. The Western media later reported that the SIT had exonerated Modi, but other investigations found otherwise. The amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court to examine the SIT’s findings issued a decidedly negative report and criticized Gujarat for its shoddy police work.

Modi has an opportunity to redeem himself in the decisions he takes on any of three issues with the potential to spark India-wide violence during his mandate. In each case, the BJP election platform called for action which would favour Hindus and distinctly disadvantage Muslims and other minorities.

Babri Masjid

The storming of the Mosque of Babur on 6 December 1992 (Photo: Sanjay Sharma/India Pix Network)

  • In 1992, an RSS-sponsored Hindu riot in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, a northern state with 31 million Muslims, destroyed an almost-500 year old mosque, the Babri Masjid (Mosque of Babur). Organizers had promised the mosque would not be harmed. The leader of the riot, L. K. Advani, went on to become BJP party president and helped foster Modi’s political career until they had a falling out recently. The destruction of the mosque was followed by a still unresolved dispute in the courts over land title, with a Hindu religious denomination asserting an historic right of access to what it claims is a Hindu Ram temple beneath the mosque. Archaeological evidence of such a temple is in dispute. In 2003, Buddhist ruins were discovered at a still lower level. With the High Court decision to divide the property still sub judice, Hindus are nonetheless moving ahead with plans to build a Ram temple on the site.
  • Article 370 of the Constitution provides significant elements of autonomy to the disputed territory of Kashmir as well as other Indian states, like Himachal Pradesh and Nagaland, whose minority populations constitute local majorities. The BJP has promised to repeal the provision.
  • At present, Muslims and several other minority communities enjoy civil codes that reflect their cultural and religious distinctiveness. The BJP has plans to bring in a Common Civil Code which would effectively relieve them of a number of important legal protections.

Modi The Manager

Modi has a deserved reputation for integrity, without hint of personal corruption. His mother still lives in a one-room apartment. One brother is a clerk in the government; another runs a food shop.

Throughout his tenure as Chief Minister in Gujarat, Modi emphasized good governance and economic development, attempting to leverage the communal consolidation among Hindus which followed the 2002 riots and appealing to Gujarat’s burgeoning middle class.

Modi has also been credited with masterful managerial skills, mostly for having concentrated decision-making power in the office of the Chief Minister and short-circuiting the state bureaucracy with its penchant for delay and corruption. He made his reputation when he arranged for Tata Motors to locate the assembly plant for its Tato Nano city car in Gujarat after the company faced heavy opposition in West Bengal. Seeing an opportunity, Modi formed a small team of about a dozen people and produced a winning offer within a week. The deal has since been criticized, however, for the minimal employment and tax revenue benefits it has generated for Gujarat. The state also has a General Motors plant, where a thousand Opels were set ablaze during the 2002 riots.

Modi’s reputation as a manager has also benefitted from the foreign direct investment which has flowed to Gujarat. Among the investors have been Bombardier Inc. which is supplying cars for India’s many metro systems under construction and McCain Foods which has adjusted its product line to supply local favourites such as Aloo Tiki (a snack made of mashed potatoes, yogurt and spices). Critics note that Modi does not deserve all the credit. Much of the new investment was initiated under the previous Congress-led government, which was also responsible for launching the road-building and electric power projects (often with funding from New Delhi) which have put Gujarat in the lead in India in these areas.

Gujarat’s economic development, however, has not been inclusive. Poverty and malnutrition in the state are up, not down. Poverty eradication programs are poorly funded and mounted, one senses, mostly for public relations purposes. Among India’s 29 states, Gujarat currently ranks 7th in per capita income, 10th on the Human Development Index, and 11th in the severity of poverty.

Health statistics paint a picture of deteriorating conditions. In 1999, for example, anemia (an indicator of malnutrition) afflicted 46.3% of females; by 2004, it had risen to 55%. Anemia also worsened among children over the same period, rising 75% to 85%. Health statistics are worst among Muslims and the aboriginal population (Adivasi).

Ahmedabad India

Lives apart in Ahmedabad

Modi’s legacy in Gujarat also suffers from how little he did to ameliorate conditions after the 2002 pogrom against Muslims. Many of those who lost homes have still not been re-housed. One of the largest refugee camps is located next to the city dump in Ahmedabad. Modi reportedly returned funds from New Delhi earmarked for the re-construction of mosques destroyed in the rioting, on the spurious grounds that the state government could not be involved in religious affairs. At last year’s Rath Yatra Hindu religious festival, however, Modi played the role of the Gajapathi King wearing the outfit of a sweeper and dusting the road in front of the chariots of the deities.


Godhra Train Fire

In the early morning of 27 February 2002, a cross-India train known as the Sabarmati Express pulled into the station at Godhra, a small town east of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat. The train was carrying Hindus returning from a pilgrimage to the reputed birthplace of the God Ram in the city of Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The group was travelling under the auspices of one of the RSS’ Hindutva organizations. While the train was in the station, it appears a group of kar sevaks kidnapped a young Muslim girl from the platform and brought her on board. As the train was leaving the station a Muslim group forced it to stop, intent on rescuing the girl. In the ensuing melee, a fire broke out on the train and engulfed four coaches trapping hundreds inside. Before the conflagration was over, 59 Hindus had burned to death including a large number of women and children.

Once the fire had been extinguished, the charred corpses were brought to Ahmedabad and paraded through the streets. Whereupon, anti-Muslim rioting broke out and persisted in various parts of the state for three months. Official figures have it that 1044 persons were murdered, including a significant number of Hindus. Unofficial figures go as high as 2000.

The three government commissions successively mounted to investigate the fire came up with three conflicting versions of the cause. One blamed the Muslim mob, another determined that the kar sevaks themselves had set the fire, and the third found that a faulty heater was to blame.

In April 2002, a citizens’ panel headed by two retired Supreme Court justices heard testimony from the BJP Home Minister of Gujarat, Haren Pandya, that the Chief Minister Narendra Modi had convened a meeting of officials in the evening of the fire and told them not to obstruct Hindu anger. A police intelligence officer named Bhatt later testified that he had been present at the meeting and supported Pandya’s account. Bhatt was subsequently tarred as a liar and linked to fabricated evidence that he was involved in the illegal drugs trade. Haren Pandya was murdered in March 2003. Fifteen people were reportedly arrested for the murder, and twelve were found guilty. In August 2011, however, the Gujarat High Court dismissed the charges against all of them. Eleven years after Pandya’s murder, the case remains officially unresolved. His wife is convinced it was “a political murder”.


We really must talk about Narendra. Just what should we expect of the man who has become India’s new prime minister? Is he the arch-Hindu radical he was in his youth and still shows signs of being? Is he the effective public manager he is now being branded as? Or has the real Narendra yet to show himself?

Continue to Part Three: A world power in waiting

Sven Jurschewsky

Retired Canadian Foreign Service officer who has specialized in political-military affairs, international security and intelligence, and nuclear arms control. Held senior positions at Canadian missions in Berlin, Bonn, Vienna, and Zagreb. Negotiator for Canada on the Charter for European Security and the 1995 extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Head of political section at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing during which he was responsible for the establishment of Canada’s diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Political counsellor, Canadian High Commission, New Delhi.

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