The ultimate outsider has been knocking at the doors of Lutyens’ Delhi for months now. On Friday, the people’s verdict came through loud and clear: Let him in. As triumphs go, a one-time tea seller winning the right to rule India is bigger than most. But Narendra Modi’s life has always been about squeezing out improbable victories, big and small.
He may be a relative stranger to Delhi, but it was from here that he pulled off an earlier, defining triumph. It was 2001, and Modi was the RSS pointsman in the BJP, living in one room next to the party headquarters in Ashoka Road, a far cry from the luxury of the Race Course Road bungalow now set to be his home.
A devastating earthquake struck Gujarat in the early hours of January 26. When the magnitude of the disaster became apparent, Modi, keen to get there before Gujarat CM Keshubhai Patel, got on the phone to a tycoon.
“He said ‘you provide me your aircraft for one day only. I want to be the first to reach there tomorrow morning.’ I arranged the aircraft for him and he flew in early in the morning. When Keshubhai learnt that Modi was already in Bhuj, he was furious and told his bureaucrats that this man would now make his life miserable,” the businessman, who wishes not to be identified, said.
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Keshubhai was right. Within a few months of the earthquake, which killed 20,000, Modi and his supporters hit out against the CM’s “failure to carry out proper relief and rehabilitation works” and by October, the BJP high command had replaced Keshubhai with Modi.
As CM, he empowered bureaucrats and dealt directly with them. Many who know him describe him as a rapt listener, who will give you his entire attention. He is also an adept gatherer of information.
“He uses multiple sources of information and that is also his strength because he knows in detail about individuals he is meeting or events,” a RSS leader in Ahmedabad said, adding, “Modi realised information is power very early in life and used information to advance his career.”
It had been a long journey from the dusty by-lanes of small-town Vadnagar, through the well-chronicled tea stall and RSS years. The manically hard-working but rough RSS pracharak turned into a high-flying CM with a fondness for glitzy watches and designer clothes. But the trappings of office did little to blunt his killer instinct.
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Talk of Modi as PM was first mooted by industrialists in 2009. But it was when he was campaigning for his third term as CM in 2012 that it became clear he wanted the PM’s job. He won Gujarat again, and the state became one giant platform for a national bid.
Mentor LK Advani was ruthlessly sidelined, and others not in his camp sullenly made way. The stars did align themselves nicely, but Modi made his own luck so effectively that his rise to India’s top job had an eerie sense of inevitability about it.
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His victory suggests that the ghosts of 2002 are consigned to an uneasy burial, for now. Some sort of reconciliation would be in order, setting apart Modi the PM from Modi the CM.
Whether that happens or not, it’s already clear that the new occupant of 7, RCR has at least three attributes that his predecessor Manmohan Singh lacked. He is his own man, he is a sharp political strategist and he is an ace communicator. That India’s new prime minister will make his presence felt is not in doubt.
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