From selling tea as a boy at a railway station in Gujarat, 62-year-old Narendra Modi is now the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chosen one to lead it into the Lok Sabha poll battle due in 2014.
The boy from a lower middle class family in small town Vadnagar in north Gujarat can become prime minister if the country votes the BJP to power.
From a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak in the late 1980s to prime ministerial nominee, Modi’s meteoric rise in politics is action packed as well as a reflection of paradoxes that underline India’s social and economic transformation over the past two decades.
His detractors hate his guts; his supporters swear by him. He is a politician who apparently delivers on governance. He is a loner, yet no other leader connects with the electorate as he does.
For politics, he blends modern technology with medieval ideology. He is a demagogue par excellence and a master strategist. He turns adversity into opportunity with ease and he is perceived as Hindutva hard-liner who has complete backing of the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the saffron party.
His handling or lack of it of the February 2002 riots in which over 1,200 people, mostly from the minority community, were killed is regarded as blot on his government and is often an impediment to his acceptability.
His dictatorial style of functioning also riles many. Because of the 2002 riots, the US had denied him a visa in 2005 and the policy continues.
Modi’s first break in politics came when he was appointed the first general secretary of the BJP’s Ahmedabad unit in 1987. Five years later, after the party’s impressive victory in the city’s municipal elections, he was elevated as organising secretary of the state BJP.
When the BJP formed its first government in Gujarat, Modi, then 45, emerged a key aide of chief minister Keshubhai Patel. He allegedly heightened the rift between Keshubhai and party stalwart Shankersinh Vaghela, who later walked out to join the Congress.
Vaghela’s defection precipitated a political crisis, forcing mid-term elections in the state. The BJP won, but Modi was shifted out of the state for falling out with Keshubhai and taken to Delhi as the party’s national general secretary. Later, he got elevated as organising secretary.
Keshubhai’s government had become unpopular for mishandling reconstruction work following the Gujarat earthquake of 2000. Modi was sent back to Gujarat to replace Keshubhai.
With less than a year left to go for the next elections, in which the BJP’s prospects appeared discounted, Modi clearly needed a strategy that broke with the practice of the past.
The religious riots in Gujarat followed the burning of a train carrying kar sevaks from Ayodhya. The riots left the state communally polarised.
Modi, who was accused of not doing enough to stop the violence, cashed in again, emerging as the new icon of hardline Hindutva politics — a tag he apparently wants to disown.
The stains of the 2002 riots are what stand in his way to gain acceptability.