Polarising politician who aims to be India’s PM

Polls indicate Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, will be able to form coalition after election

Prime ministerial candidate for the BJP Narendra Modi addressing a public rally this week for the  Lok Sabha election in Bangalore, India. Photograph: Jagadeesh NV/EPA

Prime ministerial candidate for the BJP Narendra Modi addressing a public rally this week for the Lok Sabha election in Bangalore, India. Photograph: Jagadeesh NV/EPA


Narendra Modi, the son of a tea seller who is widely tipped to become India’s next prime minister, filed his nomination papers yesterday to contest the country’s mammoth six-week general election which ends on May 12th.

The leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is standing from Vadodara constituency in his native western Gujarat state, of which he has been elected chief minister a record three times since 2002.

He is also standing for a second seat in Varanasi in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

Opinion polls indicate that the Modi-led BJP will replace prime minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party-led administration, albeit in coalition with smaller regional parties after results are declared on May 16th.

But the hardline Modi (63), viewed as a polarising and divisive personality, has successfully overcome formidable obstacles to reach this stage as almost everything about him is bitterly contested.

His political rise as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate split even his own party, where concerns over his controversial past and abrasive personality forced him to ruthlessly overcome internal dissent.

Although he has campaigned vociferously on an anti-corruption platform of good governance, accountability and economic revival – akin to the prosperity and efficiency in his home province – Modi’s links to the Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, in which over 1,200 people died, remain a political handicap.

He was Gujarat’s chief minister when these killings erupted, following the burning of 58 Hindu pilgrims in a train in Gujarat, for which Muslims were blamed.

Although Modi was never indicted by several judicial inquiry commissions, his failure to control the violence, which dragged on for several months, spawned a legacy of distrust and suspicion.

In addition, his dogged refusal to apologise for the massacre and his decision to appoint a female cabinet minister who was later found guilty of orchestrating some of the worst of the killing and jailed, have added to the rancour.

Consequently, the US and the European Union boycotted him for more than a decade.

However, along with his rising political profile in recent months and his possible elevation to India’s top job, almost all western envoys have opened up lines of communication with him.

Modi is strongly backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteer Corps, India’s powerful Hindu revivalist organisation, which he joined as a novitiate.

Founded in 1925 as a right- wing, paramilitary volunteer Hindu organisation, the RSS provides spiritual guidance to the BJP. It has been proscribed twice since independence in 1947 for its extremist beliefs.

The RSS’s fundamental role is to defend Hinduism by keeping it “pure” from outside influences such as Islam and Christianity.

It daily imparts basic military drill to millions of its cadres dressed in baggy, knee-length khaki shorts and white shirt uniforms besides involving them in ideological discussions in hundreds of neighbourhoods across the country.

The assassin of Mahatma Gandhi reportedly subscribed to similar tenets, murdering him because of his secular approach to India’s minority Muslim community.

According to a cross-section of Modi’s associates and colleagues, the prime ministerial aspirant is a loner and workaholic who sleeps little, is fastidious about his personal appearance to the point of vanity and frugal in financial matters, but is partial to watches and sandals.

He jealously guards his privacy and likes to be portrayed as a “monk with a mission”.

“He is an autocrat, impatient with the views of others and everybody around him has to move in orbits which he determines” says Modi’s biographer Nilajan Mukhopadhya.

Modi, he says, seeks suggestions, but is intolerant of dissent and unsolicited opinions. “He wants to dwarf everyone around him,” Mukhopadhya adds.

Modi’s critics question his governance record and point to a lack of progress on human development indicators under his rule in Gujarat.

They question his close ties with top industrialists in what amounts to “crony capitalism” and failure to appoint an anti-corruption ombudsman for nearly a decade until 2013.

However, with his forceful and often abrasive rhetoric in which he promises to clean up endemic corruption and bolster India’s flagging economic growth, he connects well with the electorate like no other Indian politician.

A hectoring orator, he normally addresses rallies in coarse Hindi, shunning English, which he speaks haltingly and dismisses derisively as the language of India’s “un-connected” elite.

An indefatigable campaigner, Modi effectively melds 21st- century technology – which simultaneously portrays three- dimensional holographic images of himself on to massive screens in multiple towns and villages – with references to Hindu mythology and ideology at well-attended gatherings across India.

“Modi is a full-time and consummate politician,” one of his ministers recently remarked. Every waking moment of his day was spent thinking and strategising power play, he added.

BJP insiders fear that Modi had calculatedly “sidelined” the party and successfully created a personality cult around himself, much like a presidential candidate.

His past and much of his present personal life, however, remain enigmatic, although he attempts to convey a macho image by sporting cowboy hats and being photographed on a horse.

At a recent rally, he even boasted – somewhat exaggeratedly – that his chest was an impressive 56 inches.

He walked away from a child marriage arranged by his parents, and now lives alone at his residence in Gujarat’s capital Gandhinagar, taking great pride in an elaborate aviary which he visits daily and lovingly feeds its inmates.

As a young man, he is believed to have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the Himalayas, returning to plunge into the RSS and politics in which he earned an early reputation as a formidable organiser. Alongside, he secured a master’s degree in political science from Gujarat University.

“Modi’s politics are centred around his own views, his goals and his persona,” Sheela Bhatt, a leading commentator of Gujarat, said.

For him, the BJP has a limited role of providing him the vehicle to set up an effective network to garner votes, she added.