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The Narendra Modi I once knew

By Saibal Dasgupta | China Daily | Updated: 2014-05-27 07:17

The Narendra Modi I once knew

Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi addresses a special farewell session of the Gujarat Assembly on May 21 in Gandhinagar. Modi has invited Pakistan's premier Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in on Monday to improve strained relations. Gujarat Information Bureau via Agence France-Presse

Veteran Indian journalist reflects on the political roots and character of the nation's new leader

The tall, sturdily built man looked out of place in the second floor office of a dingy building in Ahmedabad city of western India. But this office of the Bharatiya Janata Party with its yellowing walls and bare furniture was the first step in a 27-year-long journey that has led Narendra Modi to the office of India's Prime Minister.

I remember Modi telling me during our first meeting in this place in 1987: "I have two kurtas (shirts). I sleep in the office. I have no greed and therefore no fear". He said something similar to a huge audience during the recent election campaign. He has no family, and no one for whom he needs to raise or conserve funds, he said.

I worked as a reporter with the Indian Express, one of India's major English dailies, and routinely met politicians with shifty eyes and convoluted ways of speaking. Here was a fresh face of a man who looked one in the eye and did not mince words. He could be curt, even dismissive of the old-timers whom he regarded as valueless for the BJP.

Cultural organization

He came from an organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which calls itself a cultural body. The RSS is regarded as BJP's parent organization, and controls it from the outside. The RSS sent him to be the organization secretary of the BJP office in Ahmedabad. It was easily the best decision the organization has taken: Its one-time cadet is now the prime minister.

His entry caused a lot of surprises. His penchant for cleanliness, sense of exactness, eye for detail and keen time management - something few Indian politicians have - was initially resented, then ignored. He was a "disciplined volunteer" of the RSS, and could be no threat, the other party members felt.

Modi's first challenge was to overcome his absence of knowledge in the game of politics. His self-assured demeanor could hide his lack of knowledge, but not enough to satisfy the rising ambitions in this 36-year old man.

Daily strategy sessions

One of the first things he did was to establish a system of daily baithak, which are casual strategy sessions that have official goals but no set agenda. He encouraged party workers and leaders to talk among themselves while drinking endless cups of tea under a ceiling fan on sweaty afternoons. Before long, the politicians were revealing the myriad tricks they play to an eager newcomer among them.

Modi was soon organizing larger meetings outside the office and speaking a different kind of language. The organization secretary, whose primary task was to run the BJP office and maintain a link between the RSS and the political outfit, was emerging into a roaring politician before anyone noticed it.

The BJP in Gujarat province, where Ahmedabad is located, thrived on the politics of agitation. In those days, the BJP was busy organizing strikes and no party man suspected Modi would emerge as a competitor and wipe out the political careers of dozens of politicians.

"Many of the slogans he uses now had begun over two decades back. He has refined the concepts and manner of delivery along the way," said Manish Vyas, a senior journalist with Gujarat newspaper Mitra, who has closely watched Modi's rise through the years.

Man of the moment

The turning point came in 1990 when BJP leader L.K. Advani organized a major political movement called the Rath Yatra, which could be loosely described as a Long March with a different sort of agenda. As Advani proceeded on his chariot-like vehicle followed by thousands of admirers from the Somnath temple in western India, it became clear that the logistics had not been worked out in full detail. In fact, the public response far exceeded the initial expectations, and fresh arrangements had to be made for providing food, overnight accommodation and transport to thousands of people who insisted on following Advani.

This is when Modi's organizational talent was called for, and he excelled not just in arranging logistics but ensuring there were no untoward incidents or rioting in the full glare of the media

Ability to entertain

Some of those who knew Modi in his formative years say he has changed dramatically from an idealistic youth to a crafty politician. Others say he is essentially the same man, but years of facing criticism from political opponents and the media has affected his outward behavior.

It is true that Modi's baritone voice has acquired an edge, and his humor is laced with bitterness against his opponents. But this humor, this ability to entertain crowds in 400-plus public meetings, is a strong reason why his party, the BJP, won a thumping victory in the recent election.

Modi has shown great aplomb in dealing with the business and political aspirations of the Indian people. Now comes the big test, which is dealing with nations.

The big question is whether his aggressive style and tone matches well with the demand for careful, deliberate diplomacy with a new superpower, China, leading the changes.

The writer is China correspondent for The Times of India.

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