The forthcoming General Election holds the political strategist’s dream contrast. A former tea vendor is leading the campaign of one national party. On the other hand, the scion of a political dynasty comprising three former prime ministers represents the party in power. Even as the BJP, and its PM candidate Narendra Modi, are cashing in on the latter’s humble background in today’s aspirational India, the rest of us could do with a reality check.
Modi’s father ran a tea stall in small-town Vadnagar in north Gujarat. Modi assisted his father on the side, while being a full-time student at Bhagavatacharya Narayanacharya High School. The image of a hardworking young Modi, selling tea on Indian Railways, is an endearing one. But let’s get our economic facts straight here. The son of anyone who managed to get a catering spot at a government facility in licence-permit raj India is no poor hawker. There is a basic difference between capital, even petty capital, and labour.
Economic arguments can go only so far in this season of politics. Modi’s political career took off in the shakhas of the RSS, to which he devoted his youth after leaving behind work life, family and even a marriage in Vadnagar. The imprint of the RSS is indelible in Modi’s political rise. He worked for that organisation and its affiliates during the Emergency years and participated in the campaigns for Rajkot and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporations in 1983 and 1987. Soon, he was rewarded with the general secretaryship of the Gujarat BJP, a gift from the RSS. When the Gujarat BJP faced rebellion in the mid-1990s, regional leaders accused him of meddling and Modi was shifted to Delhi. He was back in Gujarat in 2001, catapulted into the post of the chief minister, never having fought a democratic election in his life.
The hovering presence of the RSS in Modi’s career is clear from the site of his first by-electoral contest in 2001 — Rajkot, the city with one of the highest number of RSS shakhas in India. Several BJP workers refused to campaign in this particular election for him in light of the unceremonious way in which he had replaced their leader and fellow Rajkotian Keshubhai Patel as the state’s chief minister. However, the RSS more than made up and ensured his election by a margin of 14,000 votes.
Modi and the RSS have not always seen eye to eye in his three-plus terms as chief minister, say on matters of swadeshi versus market reform. Yet, at critical junctures, that organisation has come to his rescue. When the Gujarat government raised agricultural power tariffs in 2004, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), also an RSS affiliate, led a revolt against the government. Matters cooled down when the RSS called a meeting between the government and the BKS leaders and the tariff was adjusted slightly. In some arenas, of course, the undemocratic RSS and the man described by his Gujarat ministerial colleagues as “authoritarian” are in sync. That organisation must approve of Modi’s Samras Gram scheme, wherein villages that elect panchayats unopposed are offered government incentives.
The RSS’ mentoring of Modi is driven by religious-ideological and organisational affinity, but also personal connections. Madhukar Rao Bhagwat, a Maharashtrian Brahmin swayamsevak was deputed to Gujarat in 1940 to set up the first shakhas of the RSS in Rajkot and other cities. Modi is said to have admired Bhagwat Sr’s organisational skills. Today, he works closely with Bhagwat Jr: current RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. The latter released Modi’s book Jyotipunj in Ahmedabad in 2007. More recently, Mohan Bhagwat and the RSS played the deciding part in anointing Modi the BJP’s prime minister-in-waiting.
A tea vendor may or may not have come far in Indian politics, but the man blessed by the RSS from the day he entered politics certainly has. Rahul Gandhi may well be in politics today because of the Nehru-Gandhi family. But Modi’s story would have been very different without the imprint of another family: The Sangh Parivar.
Sud is the author of Liberalisation, Hindu Nationalism and the State: A Biography of Gujarat