NEW DELHI, India—India’s prime minister-designate has been a lifelong zealot, who abandoned his wife, even his immediate family to dedicate himself to Hindutva, the primacy of Hinduism and its adherents.
The question being hotly debated here — in the media, on the streets — is whether Narendra Modi is capable of distancing himself from his divisive words and deeds to rule this diverse nation of 1.3 billion.
He won a landslide victory by promising to kick-start the economy, create jobs and end the dithering of the Congress government. That has sent hopes and the stock markets soaring. But the euphoria has not stopped a parallel debate on what he and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government would do to this constitutionally secular polity.
The BJP won its record 283 seats out of 543 in the lower house of parliament, but it did so with just 31 per cent of the vote, a quirk of a multiparty parliamentary election in which the rest of the votes got split among many other parties. There’s to be no Muslim in the BJP caucus, and only one Sikh. Just as there are no Muslims in his caucus in the state of Gujarat, of which he has been chief minister, premier, for the last 13 years. There are zero Muslims in those described as his inner circle (and no women, either).
Modi is no ordinary member of the BJP. He has been shaped by it and, more crucially, by its ideological fountainhead, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, (RSS) whose raison d’être is Hindutva. Its young cadres, in khaki shorts, are put through regular physical drills and drilled in its doctrine. It was an RSS sympathizer who in 1948 assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, ostensibly for being too soft on Muslims. The group was banned thrice — long before Modi joined it full time as a teenager. He walked out on his marriage, arranged by his parents, he was so committed to the RSS, which prizes celibacy.
One of his first jobs was as an attendant to one of its senior ideologues. He became a pracharak (one who does preaching prachar, publicity / propaganda) for the organization. That period of his life, though, is hazy, according to several profiles published in recent days. “What I want to know is what he did learn and do in those camps?” wonders a Western diplomat based here.
During the 1970s, he [Modi] was an RSS foot soldier who distributed pamphlets against former the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency, which throttled dissent. Modi’s organizational skills brought him to the attention of senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani.
In 1990, Modi was the sarathi (charioteer) of Advani’s infamous long march to the Hindu holy site of Ayodhya, a campaign to replace a 16th-century mosque with a temple. When that was done two years later, Hindu-Muslim clashes killed more than 2,000 people.
In 2001, he assumed office in Gujarat. Within weeks, a Hindu-Muslim clash left more 1,000 dead. He was accused of not stopping it, even aiding and abetting it, an accusation he has consistently denied. Under intense criticism, he said, yes, he regretted the Muslim deaths as he would for a “puppy run over by a car.” His only regret was that he had not managed the media well. But he made a name for himself by bringing prosperity by attracting industries. Gujarat has been a stunning economic success story. He came to be loved by corporate titans and ordinary citizens alike. He was lauded for being computer-savvy and also for his administrative skills, discipline, drive and strong work ethic. “I’ve not taken a day’s vacation” since 2001, he said recently. “I believe that every bit of my body and every minute of my time are dedicated to the people of Gujarat.”
Others called him authoritarian. When he began running for federal office, he made some tentative gestures toward Muslims. But those got nullified by his many statements and actions designed to consolidate his Hindutva base. His personal life, which he had kept shielded, burst out into the open when he filed his nomination papers to run federally. He acknowledged his marriage to Jashodaben Chiman, whereas in state elections he had left the column on marital status blank. He did so under legal advice, it was reported. Reporters found his wife — a retired school teacher, looking old and frail, living in a one-room house in a village on a modest pension. She was quoted as saying Modi had left her within three years, during which they spent only three months together, and that they had parted amicably. After his win Friday, she was quoted as saying she wanted to celebrate by offering prayers at a particular temple, ideally with him. Critics accused him of having deserted his wife. They said it showed his poor attitude to women.
But Modi was also aloof from his mother and brothers — a detachment not exclusive to the RSS. There’s a long Indian tradition of avoiding attachment to things and people. Jahan chahat hai, wahan dhuk hai. Chah nahin, dukh nahin. (Where there’s desire, there’s sorrow No desire, no pain).
His younger brother runs a modest tire shop. Modi is said to have met him only occasionally. At his inauguration as chief minister, his mother was sitting in a section for the general public when noticed by someone who brought her up front. In this election, she was said to have gone to vote in an auto rickshaw. During the campaign, he said he had no family, “no one to be corrupt for.”
Along the way, Modi earned a bachelor and master’s degree by enrolling in distance learning. He penned poetry and wrote books, in his Gujarati. He lives a simple life — wears inexpensive clothes, but they must be washed and pressed. Saada, but saaf suthra, simple but clean. Underlings ensure that the flowers thrown at him are not wet, so as not to spoil his crisp kurta, shirt. That’s all fine. But are we supposed to forget his past? That’s what many are asking.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of the mahatma and a former diplomat, wrote an open letter to Modi in the liberal newspaper, The Hindu. “While many millions are ecstatic that you will become prime minister, many more millions may, in fact, be disturbed, greatly disturbed by it . . . Development is no substitute to security . . . “Be an RSS-trained believer in Hindutva in your DNA, if you need to be, but be the Wazir-e-Azam (Urdu word for prime minister) of Hindostan that the 69 per cent who did not vote for you, would want you to be.” Gandhi is not the only one with that refrain.