Afghanistan, Qatar, Switzerland, the United States and Mexico – it’s been a busy week of top-level international meetings and ceremonies for Narendra Modi. His whirlwind tour serves as a reminder of how far India has come since the ambitious son of an impoverished tea-seller took over as his country’s 14th prime minister just over two years ago.
The 65-year-old Hindu is India’s first prime minister to have been born after independence from Britain in 1947. This, and the fact that he is at the helm of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) restored to power after a decade-long absence, and with an absolute majority for the first time in 30 years, has ushered in an ambitious era of growth-driven, outward-facing leadership in a country too often mired in the quagmires of history and vicious internal politics.
Every stop on Modi’s five-country lightning tour, the highlight of which was an address to the US Congress on June 7, has been carefully planned to build strategic bridges and develop economic partnerships vital to India’s future.
Wherever he went, his message has been the same: India’s economy is growing rapidly, and the country is not just a market of 1.25 billion consumers, but boasts “skills and a government that is open to business”.
But the highlight of the tour was, without doubt, Modi’s two-day visit to the US – home to three million Indian-Americans – during which he was granted a much-prized bilateral meeting with the president, addressed Congress and had talks with various influential business leaders and think tanks.
Crucially, Modi shook hands with President Barack Obama on a civil nuclear deal between The Nuclear Power Corporation of India and US firm Westinghouse, which will shortly see work begin on six nuclear reactors in India. Also on the agenda was India’s bid to join the elite global club that is the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a prospect now closer thanks to promised US support.
All in all, not a bad week for the son of a chaiwala who started out selling tea in a small town.
Narendra Damodardas Modi’s prospects were far from promising when he came into the world on September 17, 1950, the third of six children born to Damodardas and Hiraba Modi in Vadnagar, then a small town in north Gujarat’s Mehsana district.
According to Modi’s official biography, his was a “humble beginning”, and the young Modi did his bit, helping his father to eke out a living by selling tea at the local railway station.
During the 2014 election campaign, opponents accused Modi of having faked his membership of the so-called Other Backward Class minority group “so he could milk his supposedly lowly origins for political gain”. But such smear campaigns are common fare in the Wild West of Indian politics.
The reality, as one commentator pointed out shortly before the election, was that Modi’s very real progress through the unyielding ranks of Indian society spoke volumes about the way the country was changing. Thanks to Modi, wrote Rajat Ghai in Business Standard: “India could look forward to having its own ‘Obama moment’, when a Dalit, Muslim or Christian could hold the reins of power”.
In keeping with tradition, Modi’s marriage to Jashodaben Narendrabhai was arranged by their families. By all accounts, the couple parted quickly, and Modi only acknowledged the marriage on election papers in 2014. The young Modi wanted to join the army, which was seen as “the ultimate means of serving ‘Mother India’”. But with his family opposed, the 17-year-old made an extraordinary decision, walking away from his marriage and setting out on a journey of discovery around India.
It also proved to be a journey of spiritual discovery, during which Modi was drawn to the teachings of the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda. Upon his return, Modi, now 20, moved to Ahmedabad, where he renewed his acquaintance with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a sociocultural organisation dedicated to “the economic, social and cultural regeneration of India”. By 1972, he was working for the RSS while studying for a political science degree.
When communal riots rocked Gujarat, Modi got his first taste of the brutal reality of Indian politics. He also experienced political disillusion. Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1971 on an anti-poverty platform, but “the euphoria … faded as quickly as it was created”, Modi’s biography recalls. The dreams of reform and progress were “undone by the politics of greed”.
Modi joined the mass navnirman, or reinvention, movement, protesting and demonstrating against corruption and “exorbitant” food prices. According to his own account, Modi took part in several clandestine operations as part of the organised resistance to the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Gandhi in June 1975.
Modi rose through the ranks of the RSS and, following Gandhi’s overthrow in the 1977 elections, was made regional organiser and then general secretary of the Gujarat branch of the newly formed BJP. Between 2001 and 2014, Modi would serve four terms as chief minister of Gujarat. During his tenure, he successfully modernised infrastructure, development and anti-corruption policies.
Not everything he touched turned to gold, however.
In 2002, brutal anti-Muslim riots claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people. Modi, “India’s most incendiary politician”, as The New York Times called him in 2009, “was accused of doing little to stop the fury and on occasion, abetting it”.
In 2003, The Guardian reported that “many now believe that Mr Modi’s brand of chauvinist anti-Muslim politics … will see the BJP win a historic second term in India’s general elections”.
Only in June 2014, the month after Modi was sworn in as prime minister, and following years of legal action by families of the dead, did a court finally accept there was no evidence that Modi or his administration had contributed to the deadly violence.
Today, he is at pains to stress his affection for the Islamic faith. One highlighted passage in his official records states that as a child Modi “often celebrated both Hindu and Muslim festivals” because of “the large number of Muslim friends he had in the neighbourhood”. On June 6, he marked the start of Ramadan by conveying his greetings to the Muslim community. “May [Ramadan] deepen the bond of brotherhood and the spirit of harmony in our society.”
Since becoming prime minister in May 2014, Modi has sought to scale up his economic and social successes in Gujarat, embarking on what he has called “a journey of all-round and inclusive development where every Indian can realise their hopes”.
Under him, he says, “the wheels of progress move at rapid pace and the fruits of development reach every citizen”. Key programmes have focused on social security, pension and insurance for the poor, while his Make in India initiative has sought to make doing business easy for investors and entrepreneurs.
Modi has become a familiar face on the world stage, making the case for investment in and collaboration with India, and as a result his own stock has risen. Last year he was ranked ninth in the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People, up six places from 2014. Forbes approvingly noted he had “presided over 7.4 per cent GDP growth in his first year in office”, while a “barnstorming tour of Silicon Valley reinforced his nation’s massive importance in tech”.
According to his office, Modi attaches “great importance to strong ties with the Arab world”. Astonishingly, given the close ties between the two countries, his visit to the UAE in August 2015 was the first by an Indian prime minister in 34 years and “covered tremendous ground in enhancing India’s economic partnership with the Gulf”.
Like modern India, Modi embraces the new while cherishing the past. He has authored several books of traditional poetry and begins each day with yoga, while at the same time he has become one of the world’s most connected leaders, active on social-media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Sound Cloud, LinkedIn and Weibo. It is, perhaps, a tribute not only to the size of India’s population, but also to the scale of its diaspora, that with an excess of 20 million followers, Modi is the third most followed world leader on Twitter, after Obama and the Pope.
His message on May 15, 2014 – “India has won! The good days are coming” – quickly became India’s most retweeted post.
Modi is not unduly modest and, at times, his official profile adopts an uncomfortably self-congratulatory tone. He is, it states, “an embodiment of courage, compassion and conviction, on whom the nation has bestowed its mandate, trusting he will rejuvenate India and make it a bright beacon to the world”.
That’s quite a boast, but one that few would deny the son of a chaiwala, who shrugged off the chains of his birth to lead the world’s largest democracy.
Source: Jonathan Gornall