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Narendra Modi: A Pracharak Morphed into a Politician?

Modi has always claimed that he was “an apolitical CM”. This claim extends back to his first faltering steps in the public arena, which, undeniably, have endowed him with a unique pedigree. But this claim needs to be scrutinised.

Extracted, with permission, from Christophe Jaffrelot’s Gujarat Under Modi: Laboratory of Today’s India, to be published on 15 February 2024, courtesy Hurst Publishers, London, © Christophe Jaffrelot, 2024.


The trajectory of this book has been atypical. I submitted the manuscript in late 2013 in order to have it published before the 2014 Indian elections. For publishers, election campaigns are usually a good time for selling political books. However, their legal advisors considered that this manuscript was “high risk”.The letter I received, summarising the legal assessments, claimed that some passages “may be deemed as hurtful towards the people of Gujarat, containing an unyielding view of Narendra Modi’s”. While the manuscript had been carefully copy-edited, I was asked to cut so many passages that I decided not to move forward.

In 2020, my publisher, Michael Dwyer, and I decided not to let this book die because it was our duty to testify and present facts which were gradually fading away – because of censorship and self-censorship – regarding the rise to power of Narendra Modi in Gujarat and the specific political modus operandi he invented then.

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Modi has always claimed that he was “an apolitical CM”. This claim extends back to his first faltering steps in the public arena, which, undeniably, have endowed him with a unique pedigree. But this claim needs to be scrutinised because it does not mean that the new chief minister had no ideology; on the contrary, it reflected his sense of doctrinal purity.

Narendra Damodardas Modi was born on 17 September 1950 in the small town of Vadnagar (Mehsana district). He hails from the low caste of Modh Ghanchis (oil pressers), which was added to Gujarat’s Socially and Economically Backward Classes list in 1994 and to the central Other Backward Classes (OBC) list in 1999. His father sold edible oil, but also had a tea stall where Narendra, according to most of his biographies, used to work as a child. He joined the local RSS shakha when he was seven or eight years old “because this was the only extra-curricular activity open for him outside his peer group”. According to the biography of Modi by M.V. Kamath and K. Randeri, he very early on showed “an inclination towards becoming a sanyasi [world renouncer]”. Such a calling is not uncommon in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). M.S. Golwalkar himself renounced the world before becoming number two in the organisation. Like him, Narendra Modi went to the Belur Math, headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta (today’s Kolkata), and then to the Himalayas. In an interview he gave to Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay he explained: “I went to the Vivekananda Ashram in Almora, I loitered a lot in the Himalayas. I had some influences of spiritualism at that time along with the sentiment of patriotism – it was all mixed. It is not possible to delineate the two ideas.” This collapsing of religion and a certain political culture is typical of Hindu nationalists who, since Savarkar, look at India as their punya bhoomi (sacred land) and matri bhoomi (mother land).

Christophe Jaffrelot
Gujarat Under Modi: Laboratory of Today’s India
Hurst Publishers, 2024

Another biographer of Modi, Kingshuk Nag, does not mention this episode at all but highlights the fact that Modi left Vadnagar in 1967, when he was 17 years old, to escape a child marriage that had been arranged years before. In this version, Modi went to his uncle’s place in Ahmedabad (about 110 km away) directly from his home town.

Modi became a full-time RSS worker by the late 1960s or early 1970s. He then started living at Hedgewar Bhawan (RSS headquarters) in the residential area of Maninagar (Ahmedabad) and became the assistant to the prant pracharak in charge of Gujarat and Maharashtra, Lakshmanrao Inamdar, a former lawyer who regarded him as his manas putra (a son born out of the mind) and whom he regarded as his mentor. It seems that Modi became a pracharak as early as 1972. The next year he was involved in the Navnirman agitation, after being dispatched by the RSS to the ABVP, the Indian Student Association, then at the forefront of this movement. Around that time, it seems that Modi registered as an MA student at Gujarat University after passing his BA as an external student of Delhi University. In 1974 or 1975, he became close to one of his professors, Pravin Sheth, who writes: “As an external student of post-graduate programme in Political Science at Gujarat University, Modi used to come to me, collect reading material from me, grasp the matter. He applied them in examinations and achieved first class first. After acquiring good understanding of Political Sociology and Indian Politics, with his unique sense, he had applied the theory of Political Science in practice with appropriate adaptations.”

Modi was then absorbed by the Emergency, working underground. He was put in charge of disseminating information, including counter-propaganda against Indira Gandhi’s (and Sanjay Gandhi’s) dictatorial regime. He also took care of the families of those RSS leaders who were in prison and maintained “links between Indians abroad and at home”.

Immediately after the Emergency, he was “assigned the role of key researcher for a resource book on the Emergency”. This episode is important because it enabled Modi not only to interact with many politicians, but also to tour India. But he soon returned to his home state to pursue a career within the local RSS. As early as 1978 he had been appointed vibhag pracharak (the head of RSS units in six districts), and then sambhag pracharak (which involved the supervision of two vibhags, or divisions, those of Surat and Baroda). In 1981, he became prant pracharak, a role that consisted in coordinating various organisations of the Sangh, including the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and the ABVP throughout Gujarat. By the mid-1980s, he had been recognised as a skilled organiser and, when in 1986 L.K. Advani became BJP president, he considered taking Modi on for party work. Deputed to the BJP in 1987, he became the sangathan mantri (organising secretary) of the Gujarat unit of the party.The organising secretaries had formed the backbone of the Jana Sangh since the 1950s, after Deendayal Upadhyaya created the post in the 1950s and occupied it for years at the national level. As the state party organiser-in-chief, Modi was the architect of a whole series of programmes in the form of “Yatras” (literally pilgrimages or processions, but in practice mass demonstrations). For instance, the Nyay Yatra (Justice Pilgrimage) aimed to “demand justice for Hindu riot victims”, and the Lok Shakti Yatra (People’s Power Pilgrimage) mobilised street protests against the liquor mafia in the Old City of Ahmedabad – a demonstration that exemplified the strategy of polarisation.

Then Modi managed the Gujarat leg of Advani’s 1990 Rath Yatra, which started from Somnath. Subsequently, his skills as an organiser were used for Yatra politics at the national level. In late 1991, he was in charge of the Ekta Yatra, which Murli Manohar Joshi, the BJP president who had just taken over from Advani, led from Kanyakumari to Srinagar in order to reaffirm the national unity of India. His colleagues in the BJP office in Delhi noticed that on this occasion “he did not function the way a full-time RSS pracharak should. He was seen as projecting himself and seeking the limelight.” Indeed, during the EktaYatra, “not only was Modi accompanying Joshiji on his vehicle, but would, at every stop, address the crowds along with the BJP president.As an organiser of the yatra, he should have consciously kept a low profile.” Besides his taste for interacting with the Indian public which the EktaYatra revealed, it also afforded him a new opportunity to broaden his national, pan-Indian political experience.

Even before becoming the main party organiser of the BJP in Gujarat, Modi concentrated on one particular objective in the 1980s: the conquest of local power structures. He had concluded that “the route to Gandhinagar went through local power structures that had to be won”. As mentioned above, the BJP took the municipality of Rajkot in 1983 and that of Ahmedabad four years later, when Modi was in charge of all BJP election campaigns in the state, including local ones. These successes were achieved largely thanks to the growing political polarisation resulting from communal violence.Ahmedabad is a case in point.The BJP rose to power there after the 1985 conflagration, before which Modi had told his professor, Pravin Sheth:

“Muslims are spreading fear among the mixed localities of walled city areas in Ahmedabad. Their intention is to force evict 70% of Hindu population out of the pols [lanes of the Old City forming sub-local communities] in the walled city by spreading fear, and put the rest in minority so that they also sell their houses to Muslims and migrate to safer places in despair. Thus, they plan to convert the entire area of the walled city into a Muslim dominated town. But our RSS volunteers have reached there. We will educate Hindus about Muslim intent, try to raise their morale and prevent them from being evicted.”

The Sangh Parivar was indeed effective in Ahmedabad, as large numbers of Muslims fled during the 1985 riots and sought refuge in the ghetto of Juhapura. But the polarisation strategy worked elsewhere; and this is one of the reasons why in 1995 the BJP won six municipal corporations, including that of Surat where the BJP took all the seats.The party also won a majority in 18 of 19 District Panchayat boards. Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth point out that in the rise to power of the BJP in the state, “the crucial factor was the Sangh Parivar’s penetration into the local power structures of Gujarat, which began in the 1980s and continued in the 1990s”.

In 1995, Modi appeared as a major architect of the rise to power of the BJP in Gujarat after the party for the first time won a majority of seats in the state Assembly. BJP’s strategy continued to rely on communal polarisation, a process that was nurtured, in the wake of the 1985 riot, by targeting the “Muslim mafia” of Abdul Latif.

Modi was also successful in eliminating political rivals and winning powerful patrons in Delhi, as the 1996 episode of Advani’s election in Gandhinagar shows.The BJP president was then looking for a safe berth, given that in 1991 he had won his New Delhi seat by a small margin: “it was Modi who suggested to Advani that he should contest for Lok Sabha from Gandhinagar … that was until then represented by Modi’s peer-turned-foe Shankarsinh Vaghela (he won in 1989). It was a masterstroke as BJP got charged up in the state and Vaghela was relegated to the fringes.The relationship grew with Advani frequently visiting Gujarat after becoming MP from the state.” Modi had killed two birds with one stone, displaying a political acumen that is not usually the main hallmark of RSS pracharaks, who make a point of eschewing politics – by definition, a dirty game.

Gradually, Modi became a semi-public figure, to such an extent that he was called “super chief minister” after Keshubhai Patel formed the government and became its official head. He took part in cabinet meetings and remained in the room when senior bureaucrats came to report to the chief minister, for instance.

However, Modi failed to keep the party united, despite this being a major responsibility of a sangathan mantri. After the 1995 electoral triumph, Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela were locked in fierce rivalry for the post of chief minister. In spite of his close long-term relationship with the latter (Vaghela was, like him, one of the few low-caste RSS veterans and party president when Modi was his secretary), Modi threw his weight behind Patel, ensuring that Vaghela would get none of the spoils that were distributed to party workers. This move further alienated Vaghela, who created a difficult situation for Keshubhai Patel after defecting with “his” 47 MLAs as mentioned above. After this episode, Patel, who came increasingly under the influence of Sanjay Joshi, another pracharak assigned to the BJP who was also a rival of Modi, persuaded the party’s national leaders that Modi had to be banished from Gujarat.

Narendra Modi with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 2001. Photo: PMO

Narendra Modi went to Delhi when he was appointed national secretary in November 1995, in charge of Himachal Pradesh. Advani, who had become BJP president again in 1993, had been keen to promote him to that post, but his increasingly influential right-hand man, Pramod Mahajan, did not see eye to eye with Modi, and Modi had to spend most of his time in Chandigarh. However, when Kushabhau Thakre, another pracharak turned BJP cadre, became party president in 1998, Modi was promoted to the post of general secretary and started, from Delhi, to play a major role in the party’s organisation with official responsibilities for the states of Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh, as well as the Bharatiya JanataYuva Morcha (the youth wing of the party). He was retained in this capacity by Bangaru Laxman when the latter took over from Thakre in 2000.

His biographers M.V. Kamath and K. Randeri emphasise that by becoming Bharatiya sangathan mahamantri, Modi was following in the steps of three prestigious figures: Deendayal Upadhyaya, S.S. Bhandari and Kushabhau Thakre. However, none of them became public figures in the way he did: as organisers, they remained the power behind the throne, even though Upadhyaya and Thakre contested elections once, by default. Modi, on the contrary, had evinced some interest in the life of a politician. He liked public meetings and interacting with both the masses and the media. Other differences pertained to Modi’s tendency to side in faction fights at the expense of party unity and his abrupt behaviour with colleagues, two things that precipitated long-lasting antagonisms. Modi made two enemies in the 1990s: Shankarsinh Vaghela and Sanjay Joshi. Pravin Sheth attributed these developments to “his egoistic nature and abrasive behaviour with his fellow workers. Sometimes it appears that he has a Hubris complex. In this state, he tends to believe that his level of understanding is more than anyone else.”

Furthermore, Modi played the politician’s game when it served his interests. Not only did he sidelineVaghela by suggesting to Advani that he stand for his constituency, but he also tried to dislodge Keshubhai Patel as chief minister of Gujarat. In his memoirs, Vinod Mehta, then editor-in-chief of Outlook, recalls: “When he was working at the party office in Delhi, Narendra Modi came to see me in the office. He brought along some documents that indicated the chief minister of Gujarat, Keshubhai Patel, was up to no good.The next thing I heard was that he had become the chief minister in place of Keshubhai.” However, Modi continued to present himself as an organisation man par excellence and, when Vajpayee asked him to take over from Keshubhai Patel, he replied: “That is not my work. I have been away from Gujarat for six long years. I am not familiar with the issues. What will I do there? It is not a field of my liking [my emphasis]. I don’t know anyone.” Although he liked mass meetings, Modi did not consider himself a politician.This factor was to play a role when he took his first steps as chief minister.

Modi knew that it would be a challenging task to arrest the BJP’s declining trend before the state elections that were due to be held in February 2003. Just before his swearing-in as chief minister he told his colleagues: “We have only 500 days and 12,000 hours before the next election for the state assembly.” That the BJP was under such pressure probably explains why communal polarisation appeared particularly relevant to its pursuit of power in 2002.

Christophe Jaffrelot is Senior Research Fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s College London and Chair of the British Association for South Asian Studies.