Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is undoubtedly the most-talked-about politician today. He is also perhaps one of the most enigmatic characters in India’s political theatre. The NaMo Story: A Political Life , written by Kingshuk Nag, a former Resident Editor of TheTimes of India in Ahmedabad, attempts to understand the man who is pushing the pedal hard to become India’s next Prime Minister. The book comes out at a time when Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has all but declared that he is in the running for the post.
“You can love him or hate him, depending upon your predilection, but there is no way that you can ignore Narendra Modi,” writes Nag in the beginning of the book. Nag, who was in Gujarat from 2000 to 2005, could not be more accurate with this opening line. He also states in the beginning: “The saga of Narendra Damodardas Modi is the story of how money, religion, beliefs and rising aspirations combined to change the course of Indian politics and economy in the last 20 years.”
The book is essentially a crisp and balanced account of a politician who everyone seems to know, yet not know. Nag documents Modi’s growth as a politician starting from his initial years in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and his manoeuvrings to make the BJP the number one party in Gujarat. He also gives us a glimpse of Modi’s shrewd business mind through his description of a few deals that worked well for the Chief Minister. The author also analyses the BJP’s early years in Gujarat and the Congress’ downfall in a State where it once ruled supreme. In fact, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Nag skilfully weaves the BJP’s evolution and its subsequent rise as a national party.
The book starts with a short history of the reforms and the political environment of the 1990s. It places Narendra Modi in context describing how he used his administrative skills to build up the Hindutva agenda that the saffron parties, particularly the BJP, required to further their political goals.
Nag writes about Modi’s deft political manoeuvrings, which included co-opting the Patel community (an upper-class community that constitutes 20 per cent of Gujarat’s population) into the BJP,which resulted in the BJP’s massive victory in the 2002 Assembly elections. He explains Modi’s mobilisation of the urban middle class, which eventually turned to be his biggest social base. Dealing with the question of the Prime Ministerial ambition of Modi, Nag analyses Modi’s equation or power struggle with national-level leaders of the BJP. “If party veterans are to be believed, the trio of L.K Advani, Arun Jaitley, and Sushma Swaraj too, would like to keep Modi at bay….” Yet Advani is entirely dependent on Modi to get elected from Gandhinagar, the veteran leader’s time-tested Lok Sabha constituency.
Modi & Indira Gandhi
Nag says; “But one thing is clear: Narendra Modi will provide a complete contrast to Manmohan Singh… unlike Manmohan, whose image is that of a Prime Minister continually making compromises, Modi is voluble and firm.” Comparing him to past Indian Prime Ministers, Nag says: “If there is any Prime Minister of India that Modi can be compared to, it is Indira Gandhi. She began as an underdog, but powered her way to the top, destroying the old syndicate that controlled Congress politics up to then. She was also a demagogue, capable of decisive action and a great manoeuvre. Ditto for Modi. Indira too connected with the masses directly, bypassing the political executive.”
An interesting chapter in the book is on Modi’s antecedents. Titled “Son of the RSS”, it narrates in great detail Modi’s transition from being a tea vendor to being a Chief Minister. This man from an impoverished background was attracted to the RSS, which offered him an escape from his dreary life. The Sangh association helped him climb the political and social ladder. Here Nag traces Modi’s political trajectory through the movements of the RSS and the Jana Sangh in Gujarat, the 1968 riots, the Chimanbhai Patel government and the Emergency. Modi, he says, at the time was a mere gatherer and disseminator of information but he ingratiated himself with the political bosses by doing his job well.
Another chapter is on Modi as the BJP’s master planner. It refers to Modi’s deep and integral involvement in the Ayodhya issue. His mobilisation of kar sevaks, consolidation of the Hindutva agenda and his close working relationship with Advani on the Ram Janmaboomi yatras made him indispensable to the party. This chapter however, also explains Modi’s relationship with former Chief Ministers Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela.
Outsmarted by the two, he was packed off to Delhi where he continued his hard-line politics. It obviously impressed the party bosses and they rewarded him by sending him back to Gujarat in 2001.
Nag, who was in Ahmedabad during the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002, had a ringside view of the violence. He gives detailed descriptions of the incidents but nothing that a Gujarat observer would not already know. What is interesting is his revelation of a crisis within the BJP over the question of whether to ask Modi to resign or not. According to Nag, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to sack Modi was overruled.
He says: “Having witnessed the riots closely, I can say with authority that any government that showed such indifference in controlling the carnage elsewhere in the country would have been dismissed immediately and the State put under President’s rule. But Modi’s godfather in L.K. Advani was the Home Minister. While he steadfastly protected Modi, other Modi well-wishers, like Arun Jaitley, argued in Delhi that the liberal press in Gujarat was ‘hyping’ the situation and misreporting.”
Nag then moves on to Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister, where he gives exhaustive details on Modi’s game plan for the State, including the Vibrant Gujarat summits and his attempts to woo big businesses to invest in Gujarat.
Some skeletons tumble out at this point—such as Modi’s connection with the controversial Niira Radia, and the false claim that the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation had a massive gas find. There is some trivial but significant information about Modi’s penchant for clothes and his hairstyle preference. It reveals his thorough planning about his appearance, which is part of his image-building exercise. But the book does not give details of his massive public relations operations.
Nag attempts to probe Modi’s personal life, which is a mystery. However, he reaches a dead end like most other journalists have. Modi has a 90-year-old mother and two brothers with whom he has little contact. He had a wife through child marriage but has never lived with her. A retired teacher, she is rarely seen in public.
Politics can be a dense subject, but Nag manages to keep the narrative interesting with simple language. Though he tries to be balanced in his narrative, Nag does create an image of Modi as a wily and highly ambitious politician.
If there is any criticism about the book, it is the absence of comments and quotes from big names. It would have lent a lot more weight to a well-documented summary of Narendra Modi’s life.