Profiling Narendra Modi: From tea vendor to top contender

DPA | | Updated on: Apr 03, 2014


At election rallies across India, a stocky, bespectacled, grey-bearded man pumps his fists in the air as huge crowds roar to his cry of “Victory for Mother India.”

Latest opinion polls say Narendra Modi, 63, and Bharatiya Janata Party are favourites in the general elections.

The prospect of Modi as Prime Minister brings cheer to many who are fed up with corruption scandals linked to the incumbent Congress Party-led UPA Government and hope that he will be able to provide efficient, clean governance and revive the stagnant economy.

But for others — including sections of India’s minority Muslim community and liberals — his rise is daunting.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat since 2001, Modi is known for his administrative ability and business-friendly policies.

But his Government is also intricately linked to some of the country’s worst Hindu-Muslim riots — in 2002, which left more than 1,000 people, predominantly Muslims, dead.

Courts have so far absolved Modi of any involvement in the riots, but a close associate, Maya Kodnani, has been jailed for rioting, murder and criminal conspiracy.

Modi’s politics are centred on Hindu culture and his style somewhat authoritarian, qualities his supporters see as his best attributes, along with a humble background and relatively clean personal image.

Born on September 17, 1950, in the Gujarat temple town of Vadnagar, Modi spent his childhood helping his father run a tea stall. His family belongs to a lower caste, but one not quite at the bottom of India’s archaic social hierarchy system.

Young Modi joined RSS that was founded with the objective of making India a Hindu nation, and is the ideological parent of his political party.

He joined the BJP in the late 1980s and was a key strategist in its successful bid to take power in Gujarat. One year after he became chief minister in 2001, the state was gripped by religious violence.

The US Government denied him visas and Britain cut ties with him. But as he makes a bid to become India’s second BJP prime minister, Britain, the European Union as well as the United States have renewed relations with the Gujarat chief.

He has successfully cultivated an image as a pro-development leader known for able governance and overseeing constant economic growth in Gujarat, says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who has written a biography of Modi.

At elections rallies, Modi, a powerful orator, focuses on issues of jobs, infrastructure and corruption, with occasional forays into Pakistan-bashing.

Part of his success is due to a savvy publicity machine which has downplayed Gujarat’s less-impressive development indicators, such as high infant mortality or low literacy rates, says Ajay Dandekar, professor of history at Delhi-based Shiv Nadar University.

Critics say Modi would not be the kind of national leader that a diverse country like India requires.

“He does define Indian nationhood purely on the basis of religious identity. For him, Indian nationhood is essentially Hindu,” Mukhopadhyay says.

“People are welcome to follow other faiths, but the basic rules that would govern society would be ones that are characterised by Hinduism.” Mukhopadhyay depicts a personality that is dynamic, meticulous and has an elephantine memory, but also unforgiving, occasionally vindictive and authoritarian.

In an age of coalition politics, with no single party mustering the numbers to form a Government on its own for the past two decades, it may be difficult for Modi to draw allies if needed after elections, analysts say.

While some BJP leaders opposed the choice of Modi as the party’s premiership candidate, most believe there is a Modi-BJP wave sweeping the country and that once the party gets a near majority, allies will come calling.

Published on April 03, 2014
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