Narendra Damodar Das Modi’s story is too well-known to be recounted in our cover story. Yet, we do that to highlight the importance of the man who has redefined Indian politics as well as politicking, the politician who just a couple of decades ago was known to only Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and a handful of political journalists, the icon who is both loved and loathed with an equal intensity.
Born on September 17, 1950, into a Gujarati family in Vadnagar, Narendra Modi’s early years were very difficult. “The family belonged to the marginalized sections of society and had to struggle to make ends meet,” says narendramodi.in. “The entire family lived in a small single storey house (approximately 40 feet by 12 feet). His father sold tea at the tea stall he set up in the local railway station. In his early years, Narendra Modi too lent a hand to his father at the tea stall.”
These years left an abiding mark on him. As a child, he “balanced his studies, non-academic life and his contribution at the family tea stall. His schoolmates recall Narendra as a diligent student with a penchant for debating and reading. He would spend hours and hours reading in the school library. Among the sports, he was very fond of swimming.”
While his detractors have accused Modi of being biased against Muslims, there is no evidence to suggest that he harbored animosity towards them. “As a child he often celebrated both Hindu and Muslim festivals considering the large number of Muslim friends he had in the neighborhood,” according to narendramodi.in.
Modi reportedly dreamt of serving in the Army but it couldn’t be realized, for his family was against the idea. “Narendra Modi was very keen to study in Sainik School located in nearby Jamnagar but when the time came to pay the fees, there was no money at home.”
So, the course of his life took a different turn. “He wanted to go out there and make a difference to society… to wipe tears and suffering among people. At a young age, he developed an inclination towards renunciation and asceticism. He gave up eating salt, chilies, oil and jaggery. Reading the works of Swami Vivekananda cover to cover took Narendra Modi to a journey of spiritualism and laid the foundation for his own mission to fulfill Swami Vivekananda’s dream of a Jagad Guru Bharat,” says narendramodi.in.
At the age of eight, he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). He set up a unit of the RSS’ students’ wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, in his area. There he met Lakshmanrao Inamdar, popularly known as Vakil Saheb, who later became his political mentor. Modi rose steadily in the RSS hierarchy, and his association with the organization significantly benefited his subsequent political career.
While Modi was training with the RSS, he also met Vasant Gajendragadkar and Nathalal Jaghda, Bhartiya Jana Sangh leaders who became founding members of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Gujarat unit in 1980.
During the political crisis of the mid-1970s, prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency, banning political organizations such as the RSS. Modi went underground and wrote a book, Sangharsh ma Gujarat (Gujarat in Emergency), which chronicles his experiences as a political fugitive.
He graduated from Delhi University with a degree in political science in 1978, and completed his master’s work at Gujarat University in 1983. Modi became an RSS sambhag pracharak (regional organizer) in 1978, overseeing RSS activities in the areas of Surat and Vadodra, and in 1979 he went to work for the RSS in Delhi, where he was put to work researching and writing the RSS's version of the history of the Emergency.
Modi joined the BJP in 1987, and a year later he was made the general secretary of the Gujarat branch of the party. He was instrumental in greatly strengthening the party’s presence in the state in succeeding years. Modi rose within the party and was named a member of the BJP's National Election Committee in 1990, helping organize L.K. Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra in 1990 and Murli Manohar Joshi’s 1991-92 Ekta Yatra (Journey for Unity).
However, he decided to take a brief break from politics in 1992. He established a school in Ahmedabad. He had a fight with Shankersingh Vaghela, a BJP MP from Gujarat at the time; this also played a part in this decision. Modi returned to electoral politics in 1994, partly at the insistence of Advani, and as party secretary, Modi's electoral strategy was considered central to the BJP victory in the 1995 state assembly elections. His rise through the ranks was rapid, as he wisely chose mentors to further his career. He favored privatization of businesses and small government, and promoted Hindu values.
In October 2001 he replaced the incumbent Gujarat chief minister, fellow BJP member Keshubhai Patel, after Patel was held responsible for the state government’s poor response to the massive Bhuj Earthquake in the state earlier that year that had killed more than 20,000 people. Modi entered his first-ever electoral contest in a February 2002 by-election that won him a seat in the Gujarat state Assembly.
In February 2002, while Modi serving as chief minister of Gujarat, a train was attacked allegedly by radicalized Muslims. Violence began in retaliation, and it spread like wildfire. Modi imposed a curfew, granting police shoot-to-kill orders. After peace was restored, the Modi government was criticized for not stopping the riots in which more than 1,000 Muslims died. His administration and police were blamed for being unable and unwilling to check the killings of Muslims.
Quite apart from political allegations, he was also legally challenged. Most of it happened when the Congress was in power (2004-14). The Supreme Court, however, found no evidence against Modi.
Politically too, Modi went from strength to strength, getting elected as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, 2007, and 2012—and then as Prime Minister, in 2014 and again in 2019. In fact, it was Modi’s repeated political success in Gujarat that made him an indispensable leader within the BJP.
After a vigorous campaign—in which Modi portrayed himself as a pragmatic candidate capable of turning around India’s economy, while his critics portrayed him as a controversial and divisive figure—he and the party were victorious.
Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister on May 26, 2014. Since then, Modi has encouraged foreign businesses to invest in India. He has lifted various regulations—permits and inspections—so that businesses could grow more easily. Under him, India has climbed steeply in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking.
In 2014, he launched a "Clean India" campaign, which focused on sanitation and the construction of millions of toilets in rural areas. In terms of foreign policy, Modi has taken on a multilateral approach. He has participated in the BRICS, Asean and G20 summits, and has aligned himself with the United States, Japan, and Australia to improve economic and political ties.
In 2016, Modi won the reader's poll as TIME's Person of the Year. In previous years, he had received top ranking as one of the most influential political figures in the world in both TIME and Forbes Magazine.
It has been more than six years since Narendra Modi has been India’s Prime Minister. His tenure has been full of surprises, some of which the result of controversial decisions. While Modi has attempted to improve efficiency in the bureaucracy, he has also been accused of centralizing power by, among other things, abolishing the Planning Commission.
He began a high-profile sanitation campaign and initiated a controversial demonetization of high-denomination banknotes. The demonetization policy drew a lot of flak for its unpleasant consequences for peasants, petty traders, micro, small and medium enterprises or MSMEs, and laborers. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh highlighted its deleterious effect on economic growth and development.
Eight months after demonetization came the goods and services tax (GST). The one-step rollout of the GST created panic in the businesses. Though GST largely eased the burden of taxation, business owners, particularly, the smaller ones, complained about the cumbersome process of tax filing, making the biggest indirect tax reform an impediment in business.
On national defence and security, however, the Modi regime has fared better. On September 29, 2016, the Indian Army announced that it had conducted a surgical strike on terror launch-pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The media claimed that up to 50 terrorists and Pakistani soldiers had been killed in the strike. Against the Pulwama outrage too, the Modi government’s response—Indian Air Force aircraft entering the Pakistani air space for the first time after 1971—was robust.
Following BJP's victory in the 2019 General Elections, his administration revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. His administration also introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act, which resulted in widespread protests across the country.
The Modi government’s recent move—three new farm laws—is a bold move which has the potential of revolutionizing agriculture. It is unfortunate that Opposition leaders, vested interests, and ill-informed farmer leaders are opposing the three laws which empower the farmer to sell his produce to his choice of buyers anywhere.
It needed a strong leader to take on the might of entrenched interests within the system and the resistance of not just Opposition leaders but also of allies like the Akalis. Narendra Modi had the courage to do that.