The son of a tea-stall owner, Modi’s journey into politics started young. As a teenager he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a voluntary right-wing group that serves both as the ideological incubator for “Hindutva”, a hardline brand of Hindu nationalism, and as the philosophical parent of the BJP. Early on Modi was a “pracharak” or propagandist, living a monkish life and evangelising from village to village to win new recruits. That experience taught him “your life should be disciplined,” he said, and that “what work you get, do it well.”
Modi joined the BJP in 1987. With a reputation as an efficient organiser he rose through the ranks, although his self-promotion and ambition earned him enemies along the way, according to various biographies.
Parimal Nathwani, group president in Gujarat of one of India’s biggest companies, Reliance Industries Limited, tells a story that captures Modi’s drive to succeed. In January 2001, nine months before Modi became chief minister, Gujarat was hit by one of the worst earthquakes in India’s recorded history. Modi, who was working at the BJP headquarters in Delhi, called Nathwani at Reliance to ask if he could borrow the company jet to fly to Kutch, the hardest-hit district.
Modi did not think Gujarat’s then-chief minister Keshubai Patel – who was also BJP but was Modi’s rival – would allow him on the official aircraft, Nathwani recalls. But “he wanted to be the first to reach Kutch, to see and analyse what had happened so that he could make a report for the party leadership in Delhi.” Nathwani lent him the jet – handing Modi a political victory over his nemesis.
Nearly four months after Modi’s swearing-in, Gujarat was hit by another earthquake. This one was man-made; the after-shocks can still be felt.
On February 27, 2002, a fire aboard a train in the eastern Gujarat district of Godhra killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. While there are still questions over how it started, police blamed the blaze on local Muslims. That triggered a wave of violence in which Hindu mobs attacked predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods. India is a Hindu-majority nation; some 138 million Muslims make up about 13 percent of the population according to the 2001 census, the latest available data on religious makeup.
The Indian government later put the death toll at more than 1,000; human rights activists estimate at least double that number died. Activists and relatives of the riot victims accused Modi and his government of giving Hindu rioters a free hand. New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a 2002 report entitled “We Have No Orders to Save You” that at best police had been “passive observers, and at worst they acted in concert with murderous mobs.”
In 2011, a Gujarati court convicted 31 Muslims for the initial attack on the train. Separately, gynaecologist Maya Kodnani, who Modi made a minister for woman and children in 2007, was sentenced to 28 years last August for handing out swords to rioters and exhorting them to attack Muslims. She is still serving her sentence.
Modi has always rebuffed demands for an apology. He insists that he did all that he could to stop the violence. “Up till now, we feel that we used our full strength to set out to do the right thing,” he said.
A special investigation team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the role of Modi and others in the violence said in a 541-page report in 2012 it could find no evidence to prosecute the chief minister. Most importantly, it cleared Modi of the most damaging allegation: that he had told senior officials to allow Hindu mobs to vent their anger.
“Everyone has their own view. I would feel guilty if I did something wrong,” Modi told Reuters. “Frustration comes when you think ‘I got caught. I was stealing and I got caught.’ That’s not my case. I was given a thoroughly clean chit.”
Asked if he regretted the violence, Modi compared his feelings to the occupant of a car involved in an accident. If “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”
At the lunch at the German ambassador’s house Modi was pointedly asked by the gathered diplomats for reassurance that the bloodshed of 2002 would not be repeated. For years after the riots, EU ambassadors in New Delhi had largely kept their distance from Modi, although the EU never formally ostracised him.
Britain, which has a large Gujarati population, did impose a formal diplomatic boycott on Modi for the deaths of three British citizens in the riots, but ended it last October. Washington maintains its ban, despite pressure from some Republican lawmakers in Congress. There has been no move at the US State Department to reconsider its 2005 decision to revoke Modi’s visa over the riots, a US official told Reuters. Indeed, a US government panel, the Commission on International Religious Freedom, recommended last May that Washington refuse any visa application from Modi.
There has not been “full transparency about (Modi’s) degree of involvement in the violence and his responsibility for that,” the commission’s chairwoman, Katrina Lantos Swett, told Reuters.
At the lunch, Modi occupied a central seat at a long, rectangular dining room table, with German ambassador Steiner sitting to one side. His reply to the question about the possibility of further riots: there has been no communal violence in Gujarat since 2002, unlike in other parts of India.
In the aftermath of the riots, Modi went to work improving his reputation.
“What he has done is change the narrative and go for (economic) development,” says Swapan Dasgupta, a New Delhi-based political analyst who has advised BJP leaders on media strategy. “From 2002 onwards he does not mention the riots any more. It does not come into his speeches. This focus on development was backed up by a very powerful publicity machine.”
Modi has built a reputation as an incorruptible and efficient technocrat who has electrified Gujarat’s 18,000 villages – the state is the only one in India with a near 24/7 power supply – and slashed red tape to attract companies like Ford, Maruti Suzuki and Tata Motors.
During Modi’s 10 years as chief minister, Gujarat has grown an average of 10 percent a year. The state ranked fifth out of 15 big states in 2010/2011 in terms of per capita income. Modi boasts it is the “engine of India’s economic growth.”
But opponents and some economists point out that Gujarat has a long tradition of entrepreneurship and that the state was doing well economically before Modi took charge. Other states, including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, attracted more foreign investment than Gujarat between 2009 and 2012, according to India’s central bank.
The difference is Modi and his sales pitch. Economic success is important, he seems to realise. But so is telling that story again and again. As chief minister, Modi has embraced modern technology like no other Indian leader. He is active on Facebook and YouTube and has 1.8 million followers on Twitter, though aides say that number will have to grow substantially for it to have any impact in an election. During his re-election campaign last December, Modi used 3-D projection technology to appear simultaneously at 53 events – a world record. He appears impeccably dressed, either in suits or stylish tailor-made kurtas, a knee-length Indian shirt, rimless glasses and a neatly trimmed white beard.
“In terms of brand recognition he has succeeded eminently. Today a whole lot of people in different parts of the country at least know his name,” said Abraham Koshy, professor of marketing at India’s top business management school, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, who nevertheless questions whether Modi can turn that recognition into votes.
The Indian media and the ruling Congress party regularly claim that Modi has employed foreign help – in particular APCO Worldwide, one of the largest PR agencies in the United States – to help him rehabilitate his image and make him more acceptable to voters at home and governments abroad.
While politicians around the world use PR agencies, Modi’s political opponents hope to raise questions about Modi’s achievements, say analysts. Opponents are trying to tell voters “appearance is not reality, what you see is very different from the real Modi,” said Pralay Kanungo, a professor of politics and an expert on Hindu nationalism at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Modi’s government hired APCO in 2009 to promote Gujarat’s biannual business investment summits in India and abroad. But the Washington-based firm has repeatedly denied any involvement with Modi’s political campaigns. When asked to comment, APCO pointed to a statement they made earlier this year: “We do not work on Chief Minister Modi’s publicity campaign; we are not engaged to help resolve the (U.S.) visa issue.”
The man himself says he has no need for image makers. “I have never looked at or listened to or met a PR agency. Modi does not have a PR agency,” he said.
Modi says he rises at about 5 a.m. every day to do yoga and meditate. He reads the news for 15 minutes via Twitter on his iPad. He has not taken a holiday in 12 years, he said while walking Reuters around the garden outside his office.
Modi lives alone and has little contact with his mother, four brothers or sister.