Asian of the Year 2014: Tea seller to Prime Minister of India

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed journalists at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in New Delhi this October, he remarked that as a political worker he used to arrange chairs for reporters at the same venue three decades ago.

The comment underscores the phenomenal rise of Mr Narendra Damodardas Modi, the son of a tea seller who worked his way up the ranks of the BJP and now leads a nation of 1.25 billion people. 

The 64-year-old politician, a teetotaler and vegetarian, is clearly aware that references to his humble origins resonate in a country where aspirations are high and millions are trying to shake off the shackles of caste. 

“Today I stand before you as the son of a poor man. This is the strength of democracy,’’ said Mr Modi in his first Parliament speech after winning elections in May this year.

Since then he has worked to rebrand himself as a bipartisan statesman. He has embraced Congress Party icons like Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, and Independence hero Mahatma Gandhi.

Those who have followed him over the years say that while his style of governing hasn’t changed from his days as Chief Minister of Gujarat state, his vision has broadened. 

He greeted the people of the United Arab Emirates, host to a large number of Indian workers, on its national day this week and sent out Thanksgiving Day greetings to Americans. As Australia mourned the death of its young cricket star, Phillip Hughes, Mr Modi, a cricket fan, tweeted: "Heart-rending funeral in Australia. Phil Hughes, we will miss you. Your game & exuberance won you fans all over! RIP.”

Mr Modi has shown that he can juggle his diplomatic engagements, run the government and campaign for his party. In the coming state election in the capital Delhi, Mr Modi remains the face of the BJP's campaign.

"He used to be called chief minister in perpetual campaign mode. He is always in campaign mode," said his biographer, Mr Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

The third of six children, Mr Modi's politics stem from his early training in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist outfit of which his party, BJP, is the political front.

His first taste of national level politics came when he was transferred to BJP headquarters in 1995. Reporters who used to cover the BJP at the time speak of how accessible he used to be, a marked difference from the Modi of later years, who keeps the media at some distance.

At the time he also worked closely with BJP leader LK Advani, who mentored him. Mr Advani, who saw his own prime ministerial ambition destroyed by the rise of Mr Modi, was instrumental in saving his protégé from being fired as Gujarat chief minister after the alleged mishandling of the 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, a majority of them Muslims, lost their lives.

While Mr Modi has been cleared by the courts of any blame, his former minister and close aide Maya Kodnani was sentenced to 28 years in prison for leading a mob that killed 97 people. 

For most politicians the taint of the riots would have cut short their political future. Instead, Mr Modi, who has never apologised for the riots, set about converting the western state of Gujarat into an economic powerhouse. That track record as a development-minded leader helped him win subsequent state elections, and now, national power.

In India's national election earlier this year he successfully leveraged the deep-seated anger against the Manmohan Singh government, enthusing crowds across the country with his sharp rhetoric. Now, he is asking people to keep him in office for at least a decade.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg