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Narendra Modi: From humble tea boy to India's Prime Minister-elect

India's PM-elect is an enigma with rhetoric accessible to all

Published on May 17, 2014 7:31 AM
 

Stepping off his helicopter at campaign rallies, he keeps a safe distance from the crowd, guarded every inch by commandos with weapons at the ready. But when he begins to speak, he is instantly accessible to the milling throng.

For it is the language of the everyman, barbed, mildly crude at times - but never boring. The rhetoric is riveting. The numbers glide off his tongue with ease. Every speech is tailored to the local audience, and sometimes, far beyond.

But ask him a tough question and the response is often laced with the menace of mean streets: "What is the agenda? Don't waste your time trying to trap me."

More often than not, the toughest interviewer quails before that unsmiling gaze.

Oddly though, millions of Indians seem to love this personality, perhaps because it is a total contrast to the prime minister he is about to replace - the soft-spoken, mo-nosyllabic Dr Manmohan Singh.

As the world prepares to deal with the 63-year-old Hindu nationalist and acclaimed development-focused administrator, it is worth spending a little time to unwrap the enigma that is Mr Narendra Damordas Modi.

To hear his rhetoric, you would believe that Gujarat, the state he ran for the past 12 years, is tops in every measure of development, from the rate of growth to the girls-only toilets that keep the girls from dropping out of schools.

The reality is that the state, while expanding faster than the national average, certainly does not top several human indices.

Mr Modi promises his audience the leadership of a man with a 56-inch chest. His tailor puts it closer to 44 inches. Indeed, he is a master of exaggeration, not only of his own achievements, but also the ills of his opponents.

In a speech in the north-eastern state of Assam, famed for its one-horned rhinoceros, Mr Modi alleged that rhinos were disappearing because the entrenched Congress party administration was clearing their habitat to make way for illegal Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The contradictions do not end.

He revels in his chai-wallah, or tea seller, origins, using his humble background to widen the distance in the public mind with the hugely entitled Congress party frontman Rahul Gandhi, whom he dismisses as a "princeling".

His aged mother still lives in a tiny apartment, and, he pointed out proudly, took a trishaw to cast her vote. But he himself is fashionably dressed, turning out in smart, half-sleeved tunics that change several times a day.

His cold gaze is refracted through lenses that sit on Bulgari frames, the timepiece on his wrist is Movado, and in his breast poc-ket rides a Montblanc, a pen also favoured by the late Mr Rajiv Gandhi, father of the "princeling".

"People of this country have given 60 years to the rulers," he said in a speech in Uttar Pradesh, India's biggest electoral prize with 80 of the 543 parliamentary seats. "Now, give 60 months to the servant. I promise I will bring prosperity in that time."

For many Indians, he is the real goods. Critics who observe him closely call him a total package, such is the brilliance of his public relations campaign.

Life for Mr Modi began in a caste of lowly oil-pressers as the third of six children of a poor tea-seller at Vadnagar Railway Station, in Gujarat. Later, he himself sold tea at the nearby bus station. As was the custom of the day, his future wife was identified when he was just four years old and a betrothal ceremony conducted when he was 13. But he is said to have never lived with his wife, instead choosing to immerse himself as a full-time worker with the militant Hindu outfit RSS, one of whose members had assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Indian media quotes former school teachers as describing him as an average student but a keen debater.

Mr Modi rose swiftly in the RSS system, heading the Gujarat state unit of its student wing. He went to Delhi University to study political science, followed by a master's from Gujarat University.

As his reputation as an organiser grew, he came to be known for an abrasive style that brooked little dissent. Party elders both respected and feared him. Along the way, he is said to have plotted to bring down a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister of Gujarat, whose protests to party elders finally resulted in Mr Modi being transferred in 1995 to the party headquarters in New Delhi in the position of national secretary.

There, working with BJP leader L.K. Advani, Mr Modi put his stamp on the party headquarters, involved even in hiring minor support staff. Today, former party chiefs and mentors such as Mr Advani and Mr Murli Manohar Joshi - the man who was forced to vacate his Varanasi seat for Mr Modi - have to wait to see him.

In 2001, he was sent to take charge of Gujarat as chief minister, settling in for an uninterrupted reign of more than 12 years.

Early in his stint came the riots that would forever smear his name. More than 1,000 people died in Hindu-Muslim clashes, with the minority community being the worst sufferers. Mr Modi has not shown much contrition for that outrage, although many Gujarati Muslims seem to have forgiven him to vote in his favour.

Picked by the BJP to be its candidate for prime minister, Mr Modi wasted little time, addressing more than 400 meetings over the past six months as he criss- crossed the country.

Two months ago, Congress party loudmouth Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former minister, handed him a political coup when he sneered at his tea-selling days during a speech to the All India Congress Committee.

"If he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him," said Mr Aiyar. "I give you my word: In the 21st century, Narendra Modi will never become prime minister of the country."

Overnight, Mr Modi became a celebrity among tea sellers across India, where people held special sessions in his honour. When Mr Rahul Gandhi's sister Priyanka attacked him over his "low politics", Mr Modi artfully turned it to his advantage, saying the Gandhis were attacking him over his low-caste status. No ruling party in India has ever had to contend with such an agile opponent.

Now, thanks to the tea seller from Vadnagar, it is champagne time for the BJP. Too bad that Mr Modi himself is a teetotaller.

velloor@sph.com.sg

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