by Rajdeep Sardesai
Counting day in a television studio. A bit like a T20 match. Fast, furious, the excitement both real and contrived. The 16th of May 2014 was no different. It was the grand ﬁnale of the longest and most high-decibel campaign in Indian electoral history—this was the ﬁnal of the Indian Political League, the biggest show in the democratic world. In the studio, we were preparing for a long day with packets of chips and orange juice to stay energized. But even before we could settle our nerves, or go for a ‘strategic break’, it was all over.
By 9.30 a.m., it was certain that Narendra Modi would be India’s fourteenth prime minister. In our studios, Swapan Dasgupta, right- wing columnist and a proud Modi supporter, was cheering. ‘It’s a deﬁning moment in Indian history,’ he exulted. His sparring partner, the distinguished historian Ramachandra Guha, who disliked Modi and Rahul Gandhi in equal measure, had a ﬁrm riposte. ‘I think Modi should send a thank you card to Rahul for helping him become prime minister of India!’
As we analysed the scale of the win, my mind went back to the moment when I believe it all began. The 20th of December 2012 saw another T20 match, another counting day. The results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections were streaming in that morning. Himachal was an also-ran. Gandhinagar was where the action was. By noon, we had the breaking news—Narendra Modi had scored a hat-trick in Gujarat. The margin was a bit lower than many had predicted, but with 116 seats in a 182-member assembly, Modi was once again the self-styled ‘sher’ of Gujarat.
That evening, Modi addressed a large gathering of the party faithful in Ahmedabad’s JP Chowk. ‘If there has been a mistake somewhere, if I have erred somewhere, I seek an apology from you, the six crore Gujaratis,’ said the Gujarat chief minister. ‘Gujarat is a role model for elections,’ he added. ‘The entire election was fought here on the plank of development. Gujarat has endorsed the plank of development. This victory is not the victory of Narendra Modi but of the six crore Gujaratis and those Indians who aspire for prosperity and development. This is a victory of all those who wish the country’s good.’
This was clearly no routine victory speech. Showing a characteristic alertness to the political moment, it was delivered in Hindi and not Gujarati, designed for a national audience way beyond Gujarat. In the frenzied crowds, posters had sprung up: ‘Modi chief minister 2012; prime minister 2014’. One Modi supporter even went to the extent of claiming ‘Modi is India, India is Modi’, reminiscent of Congress slogans for Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. As the ‘PM, PM’ chant echoed amidst the crowd throughout the speech, Modi obligingly said, ‘If you want me to go to Delhi, I shall go there for a day on 27 December.’
In our studios that day too, Swapan Dasgupta was elated. It wasn’t just a self-congratulatory ‘I told you so’ reaction—most exit polls had predicted a Modi win. He was convinced that Modi was now poised to take the great leap to the national capital. ‘This is the beginning, we will now see a clear attempt to redeﬁne Mr Modi’s role in national politics’, was his verdict. Modi’s triumph carried the edge of a victory over the ‘left liberals’, a mufﬂing of those critical voices which seemed to have dominated the mainstream. India’s right-wing voices were waiting to burst through the banks and sweep aside the so-called ‘secularists’ who in their view had monopolized the discourse on Modi. Swapan seemed not just excited at Modi’s victory but inordinately pleased at being able to cock a snook at his ideological opponents.
Others in the studio panel were a little more sceptical. After all, Modi wasn’t the ﬁrst chief minister to score a hat-trick of wins. Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik, Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and, of course, the redoubtable Jyoti Basu in Bengal had shown it was possible. Was Modi, then, sui generis? Was there something in the saffron-hued Ahmedabad air that evening which suggested this was a watershed moment in Indian politics?
Later that night, as the dust settled and the television talking heads made their exit, I telephoned Mr Modi’s residence in Gandhinagar to congratulate him. A little after midnight, he returned the call. ‘Congratulations on your victory,’ I said. His response was in Hindi.‘Dhanyawaad, bhaiya!’ I asked him whether his decision to deliver a victory speech in Hindi was the clearest sign yet that he wanted to make a pitch for prime minister. ‘Rajdeep, jab aap reporter editor ban sakte ho, toh kya chief minister, pradhan mantri nahi ban sakte kya?’ (If a reporter like you can become an editor, why can’t a chief minister become a prime minister.) Stated with his trademark gift of quick-witted repartee, there was my answer.
The ﬁrst time I met Narendra Damodardas Modi, I was a young reporter with the Times of India in Mumbai. The year was 1990 and I had been in the profession for less than two years. My hair had not greyed nor had Modi’s. He was wearing a loose, well-starchedkurta–pyjama and greeted us warmly. Almost instantly, he became Narendrabhai for all the journalists.
The occasion was the Ram rath yatra of L.K. Advani from Somnath to Ayodhya. I had been assigned to cover one leg of the yatra as it wound its way from Gujarat into Maharashtra. Actually, I was the secondary reporter, tasked with looking for some ‘colour’ stories around the main event. I joined the yatra in Surat as it moved across south Gujarat and then into Maharashtra. For me, it was a big opportunity to gain a ringside view of a major national political event, away from the local Mumbai politics beat.
It was a big occasion for Narendra Modi too. He was then the BJP’s organizing secretary in Gujarat, the RSS’s point person for the state, looking to carve an identity for himself well beyond being just another pracharak. If the rath yatra provided me an opportunity for afront-page byline, it gave Modi a chance to take a step up the political ladder. His role was to ensure the yatra’s smooth passage through Gujarat and create an atmosphere and a momentum on which the BJP could capitalize in the rest of the country.
Gujarat at the time was poised to become, as subsequent events would conﬁrm, a ‘laboratory’ for political Hindutva. The BJP had just made an impressive showing in the assembly elections that year, winning sixty-seven seats and forging a coalition government with Chimanbhai Patel’s Janata Dal (Gujarat). The alliance didn’t last long as Patel merged his party with the Congress, but it was clear that the BJP was the party of the future with a solid cadre and a strong popular appeal across the state.
Under Advani’s leadership, the BJP had abandoned the ‘Gandhian socialism’ plank for a more direct appeal to religious nationalism. The idea of a Ram temple in Ayodhya was central to this new line of thinking. From just two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984, the party had won eighty-ﬁve in 1989. There was a fresh energy in its ranks, with an emerging group of young leaders giving the party a sense of dynamism missing from an earlier generation. Modi, along with the likes of Pramod Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj, was part of this Generation Next of the BJP.
As a Mumbai journalist, I had got to know Mahajan ﬁrst. He had a debonair ﬂamboyance that marked him out amidst the BJP’s conservative and rather nondescript cadre. He may have got his early inspiration from the RSS but appeared to have little time for its austere lifestyle. He was the ﬁrst politician I knew who wore Ray-Ban, who never hid his afﬁliations to big business houses and who openly enjoyed his drink. One of my unforgettable journalistic memories is of sitting in a rooftop suite of Mumbai’s Oberoi hotel with Bal Thackeray smoking a pipe while Mahajan drank chilled beer. To think that the pipe-sucking Thackeray and the beer-swilling Mahajan were the architects of the original ‘conservative’ Hindutva alliance indicates sharply how ideological Hindutva was in fact tailor-made for hard political strategy.
Mahajan was every journalist’s friend. He was always ready with a quote, a news break and an anecdote. He was also, in a sense, the BJP’s original event manager. The 1990 rath yatra, in fact, was his brainchild and he was made the national coordinator of the event.
Modi was in charge of the Gujarat leg, and was to accompany the procession from Somnath to Mumbai. Which is how and where we met. My early memories of him are hazy, perhaps diluted by the larger-than-life image he acquired in later years. But I do remember three aspects of his persona then which might have provided a glimpse into the future. The ﬁrst was his eye for detail. Every evening, journalists covering the yatra would receive a printed sheet with the exact programme for the next day. There was a certain precision to the planning and organization of the entire event which stood out. Modi would personally ensure that the media was provided every facility to cover the yatra. Fax machines were made available at every place along the yatra route, with the BJP local ofﬁce bearing all expenses. Modi even occasionally suggested the storyline and what could be highlighted! Micromanagement was an obvious skill, one he would use to great effect in later years.
The second aspect was his attire. Without having acquired the designer kurtas or the well-coiffured look of later years, he was always immaculately dressed and well groomed. He may have lacked Mahajan’s self-conﬁdence, but Modi’s crisply starched and ironed kurtas marked him out from the other RSS–BJP karyakartas (workers) who sported a more crumpled look. Rumour had it that he spent at least half an hour a day before the mirror, a habit that suggests early traces of narcissism. The third lasting impression came from Modi’s eyes. Sang Kenny Rogers in his hit song ‘The Gambler’: ‘Son, I’ve made a life from readin’ people’s faces, knowin’ what the cards were by the way they held their eyes.’ In my experience, those with wide twinkling eyes tend to play the game of life gently, perhaps lacking the killer instinct. Modi in those early days smiled and laughed a lot, but his eyes at times glared almost unblinkingly—stern, cold and distant. They were the eyes of someone playing for the highest possible stakes in the gamble of life. His smile could embrace you, the eyes would intimidate.
The dominant image of that period, though, was the yatra itself. It wasn’t just another roadshow—this was religion on wheels that was transformed into a political juggernaut. Religion and politics had created a heady cocktail. Mahajan and Modi were the impresarios, Advani was the mascot, but the real stars were the Hindutva demagogues Sadhvi Rithambhara and Uma Bharti. I shall never forget their speeches during the yatra, seeking Hindu mobilization and loaded with hate and invective against the minorities. Feverish chants of ‘Jo Hindu heet ki baat karega wahi desh pe raj karega’
(Those who speak of beneﬁts to Hindus, they alone will rule the country) would be accompanied by powerful oratory calling for avenging historical injustices.
Uma Bharti, a natural, instinctive politician and mass leader, appeared to me breezily bipolar. At night-time rallies, she would deliver vitriolic and highly communally charged speeches, and the very next morning, she would lovingly ask me about my family and offer to make me nimbu pani (she is a terriﬁc cook, I might add). Years later, when Modi was sworn in as prime minister, Uma Bharti was made a minister and Sadhvi Rithambhara was a special invitee—the wheel appeared to have come full circle for these stormy petrels. As I watched ﬁrst as a reporter in his twenties, through the decades to an editor in his late forties, the Hindutva movement rose up from street-side clamour and charged-up rath yatras to claim its place ﬁnally at the national high table, with these indefatigable agitators always at hand to lend their shoulder to the slowly rolling saffron wheel as it turned corner after corner.
The next time my path crossed with that of Modi we had both, well, moved a step up in life. I was now a television journalist while Modi was a rising star in the BJP in Gujarat. It was March 1995 and I was covering the Gujarat assembly elections for NDTV. It was the early days of private news television and we had just begun doing a daily news programme for Doordarshan called Tonight. For the BJP, too, the assembly elections were new, uncharted territory. For the ﬁrst time, the party was in a position to capture power on its own in Gujarat.
As the results began to trickle in—and this was the pre-electronic voting machine era, so the counting was much slower—there was an air of great expectancy at the BJP party headquarters in Khanpur in Ahmedabad. By the evening, it was becoming clearer that the BJP was on its way to a famous win. The party eventually won a two-thirds majority with 121 of the 182 seats. The leaders were cheered as they entered the party ofﬁce. Keshubhai Patel was the man anointed as chief minister; other senior leaders like Shankersinh Vaghela and Kashiram Rana all shared traditional Gujarati sweets and farsan. In a corner was Modi, the man who had scripted the success by managing the election campaign down to the last detail. The arc lights were on the BJP’s other senior leaders, but I remember an emotional Modi telling me on camera that ‘this is the happiest moment in my life’. The almost anonymous campaign manager seemed to sublimate himself to his party with the ﬁerce loyalty of the karyakarta.
On 19 March 1995, Keshubhai Patel was sworn in as the ﬁrst BJP chief minister of Gujarat at a function in Gandhinagar. Again, Modi wasn’t the focus, but already the whispers in party circles projected him as the ‘super-chief minister’. The sweet smell of success, though, would quickly evaporate. The Sangh Parivar in Gujarat became the Hindu Divided Parivar and the party with a difference began to weaken because of internal differences. By October that year, a rebellion within the BJP led by Vaghela forced Keshubhai to resign. A compromise formula was evolved—Suresh Mehta was made the chief minister of Gujarat, and Modi, who was accused by his detractors of fomenting the politics of divide and rule in the state, was packed off to north India as the national secretary in charge of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
These were Modi’s years in political vanvas (exile). He could have dived into his new challenge, but his heart was always in Gujarat. ‘He still wants to be the chief minister of Gujarat one day, that is his ultimate ambition,’ a common friend told me on more than one occasion. If that was his ﬁnal destination, Modi kept it well concealed. Once ensconced in Delhi, Modi liked to speak out on ‘national’ issues. Private television was just beginning to ﬁnd its voice and political debates on television had just begun to take off. Modi, as an articulate speaker in Hindi, was ideally suited as a political guest for prime-time politics on TV.
Modi took to television rather well at that time in the late 1990s. I recall two telling instances. Once I was anchoring a 10 p.m. show called Newshour on NDTV with Arnab Goswami. (Arnab would later anchor a similarly named prime-time show on Times Now with great success.) At about 8.30 p.m., our scheduled BJP guest, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, dropped out. We were desperate for a replacement. I said I knew one person in Delhi who might oblige us at this late hour. I rang up Modi and spoke to him in Gujarati (I have always believed that a way to a person’s heart is to speak to them in their mother tongue, a tactic that every reporter learns while trying to charm the power food chain from VIPs down to their PAs and PSs).
‘Aavee jao, Narendrabhai, tamhari zarrorat chhe’ (Please come, Narendrabhai, we need you). Modi hemmed and hawed for all of sixty seconds and then said he was ready to appear on our show but didn’t have a car. Modi at the time lived in 9, Ashoka Road, next to the BJP ofﬁce along with other pracharaks. I asked him to take a taxi and promised that we would reimburse him. Arnab and I sweated in anticipation as the countdown began for 10 p.m. With minutes to go, there was still no sign of Modi. With about ﬁve minutes left to on-air,with producers already yelling ‘stand by’ in my ear, a panting Modi came scurrying into the studio, crying out, ‘Rajdeep, I have come, I have come!’ He was fully aware he was only a last-minutereplacement but so unwilling was he to give up a chance at a TV appearance, he made sure he showed up, even at the eleventh hour. As far as Arnab and I were concerned, we had our BJP guest and our show was saved.
In July 1999, when General Musharraf came visiting for the Agra Summit, Modi came to our rescue again. We were on round- the-clockcoverage of the event, and needed a BJP guest who would be available for an extended period. Modi readily agreed to come to our OB van at Vijay Chowk, the designated site for political panellists outside Parliament. But when he arrived, it began to rain and the satellite signal stopped working. Without creating any fuss whatsoever, Modi sat patiently through the rain with an umbrella for company and waited for almost two hours in the muddy downpour before he was ﬁnally put on air.
At one level, the determined desire to be on television perhaps smacked of a certain desperation on Modi’s part to stay in the news and in the limelight. This was a period when he had lost out to other leaders of his generation. Mahajan, for example, had become prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s right-hand man and a leading minister in the government. Sushma Swaraj was a great favourite with the party’s supporters for her oratorical skills, and her decision to take on Sonia Gandhi in Bellary had given her a special place as a fearless political ﬁghter. Arun Jaitley was also slowly emerging as one of the party’s all-rounders—a crisis manager, a highly articulate legal eagle and a credible spokesperson on TV.
Modi, by contrast, was struggling to carve a distinct identity. He had been virtually barred from Gujarat, a state where a theatre of the absurd was being played out with four chief ministers in four years between 1995 and 1998. In Delhi, Modi was being accused of playing favourites in Himachal Pradesh and mishandling the political situation in Haryana. Moreover, as a pracharak, he was expected to remain content as a faceless organizer and a backroom player. I would meet Modi often in this period, and sometimes over a meal of kadhi chawal (he ate well but liked to keep his food simple), I got the sense of a politician struggling to come to terms with his seeming political isolation. For an otherwise remarkably self-conﬁdent man, he often gave way to a creeping self-doubt over his immediate political future. I remember we once did a poll in 1999 on who were the BJP leaders to watch out for in the future. Mahajan, Swaraj, even anotherpracharak-turned-politician Govindacharya, were mentioned; Modi didn’t even ﬁgure in the list. ‘Lagta hai aap punditon ne desh mein bhavishya mein kya hoga yeh tay kar liya hai!’ (Looks like you political pundits have decided the country’s future), was Modi’s sharp response.
Which is why news television became an ally, almost a political weapon, for Modi in this period. It gave him a national proﬁle in a crowded political space. It also ensured that he remained in public memory, both in Gujarat and in Delhi. He was a good partyspokesperson—clear, direct, aggressive, often provocative. He did not pussyfoot around the party’s commitment to Hindutva and never shied away from a joust.
When the Twin Towers were attacked in New York in September 2001, I was looking for a guest for my weekly Big Fight show to discuss the new buzzword—Islamic terror. The BJP leaders in the Vajpayee government were for some reason reluctant to appear on the programme. Modi had no such compunctions as he came and spoke out strongly against what he said was one of the biggest threats to the country. ‘It has taken an attack like 9/11 for India’s pseudo-secularmedia to ﬁnally use a word like Islamic terrorism and wake up to the reality of how some groups are misusing religion to promote terror,’ thundered Modi in the programme.
Little did I know then that Modi’s position on Islam and terror would subsequently come to deﬁne his political identity. I also could not have foreseen that the man who was one of my ‘go to’ BJP netas for a political debate would never again appear on a television show of this kind. Life for Modi, the country and even for me as a journalist was about to take a dramatic twist.
Less than four weeks after appearing on The Big Fight show on the 9/11 terror attack, Narendra Modi was sworn in as Gujarat’s chief minister. It was a remarkable change in fortune for a leader who had found himself on the margins of national politics till then. The change in leadership in Gujarat had been in the ofﬁng for some time. Keshubhai Patel’s second term as chief minister had been disastrous. The BJP had lost a series of municipal elections and assembly by-elections in the state in the 2000–01 period. On 26 January 2001, as the country was celebrating Republic Day, Kutch and Ahmedabad had been shaken by a devastating earthquake. Instead of seeing this as a wake-up call, Patel’s government became even more somnolent. The relief and rehabilitation measures were widely criticized. Modi himself once told me in March that year, ‘Yes, we need to do more, else people will not forgive us.’ Nature had delivered its verdict—the political leadership of the BJP was left with no choice but to heed the message. It wasn’teasy—a strong section of the state leadership remained opposed to Modi. In the end, it was the Advani–Vajpayee duo who pushed the decision with the support of the RSS.
On 7 October 2001, Modi became the ﬁrst full-time RSS pracharak to be made a state chief minister. It hadn’t been an easy ride. Born in a lower middle-class family in Vadnagar in north Gujarat’s Mehsana district, Modi came from the relatively small Ghanchi community, an OBC caste involved in oil extraction. This was a state whose politics was dominated by the powerful landowning Patels. In early conversations, I never heard Modi speak of his caste background or his years in Vadnagar. He did speak, though, of his RSS mentors with great fondness. ‘Lakshman Inamdar, or Vakilsaab, is a Maharashtrian like you, he guided me always,’ Modi told me. ‘You should then speak better Marathi!’ I teased him.
A few days after he became chief minister I interviewed Modi on the challenges that were now before him. ‘We have to rebuild Gujarat and restore conﬁdence in the people in our leadership,’ he said, sounding almost sage-like. I sensed that he had been waiting for this moment for years. Some of his critics have suggested that Modi ‘conspired’ to become chief minister. Veteran editor Vinod Mehta has claimed that Modi had met him with ﬁles against Keshubhai which he wanted him to publish. Clearly, this was one pracharak who was adept at the power game.
A pracharak, or ‘preacher’, is the backbone of the RSS-led Sangh Parivar. Mostly bachelors, they are expected to live a life of austerity and self-discipline. Modi wasn’t a typical pracharak—he was intensely political and ambitious. I had met several Gujarat BJP leaders who insisted Modi was constantly plotting to ‘ﬁx’ them. Modi was also aloner—when I met him in the BJP central ofﬁce in his wilderness years in the late 1990s, he was often alone. His contemporary, Govindacharya, would be surrounded by admirers; Modi preferred to be in the company of newspapers.
Which is why becoming chief minister was a major transition point in his life. As an organizational man, Modi had proved himself ashard-working, diligent and passionate about his party and its ethos. Now, he needed to show that he could actually be a politician who could lead from the front, not just be a back-room operator who had never even contested a municipal election.
Modi’s big chance came on 27 February 2002. I was showering that morning when a call came from an old journalist friend from Gujarat, Deepak Rajani. Rajani managed a small evening paper in Rajkot and had excellent contacts in the police. ‘Rajdeep, bahut badi ghatna hui hai Godhra mein. Sabarmati Express mein aag lagi hai. Kaie VHP kar sevak us train mein thhe. Terror attack bhi ho sakta hai’(There’s been a big incident at Godhra. The Sabarmati Express with many kar sevaks aboard has caught ﬁre. It could even be a terror attack). In the age of instantaneous breaking news, it isn’t easy to separate fact from hyperbole. What was clear, though, was that a train compartment had caught ﬁre and several kar sevaks (volunteers) were feared dead.
A few hours later, as the information became clearer, it was apparent that this was no ordinary train ﬁre. A mob of local Muslims in Godhra had attacked the train, a ﬁre had started and several people had died. The backdrop to this tragedy had been an attempt by the VHP to reignite the Ram temple movement by launching another shila pujan(foundation stone-laying ceremony) in Ayodhya. Several kar sevaks from Gujarat had joined the programme and were returning from Ayodhya when the train was attacked. That evening, Modi, visiting the site in Godhra, suggested that the kar sevaks had been victims of a terror conspiracy. The VHP was even more aggressive—a bandh was called in Gujarat the next day.
Television journalists like to be at the heart of the action. A few of my action-hungry colleagues rushed to Ayodhya because there were reports of a potential backlash to the train burning, in UP. The Union budget was to be announced the next day, so a few journalists remained parked in the capital. My instinct told me to head for my birthplace, Ahmedabad. A senior police ofﬁcer had rung me up late that evening after the train burning. ‘Rajdeep, the VHP is planning a bandh. The government is planning to allow them to take the bodies home in some kind of a procession. Trust me, there could be real trouble this time,’ he warned. The next day, along with my video journalist Narendra Gudavalli, we were on the ﬂight to Ahmedabad.
The Ahmedabad I travelled to that day was not the city I had such happy memories of. As a child I spent every summer holiday in the comforting home of my grandparents. Hindi movies, cricket,cycling—Ahmedabad for me was always a place to savour life’s simple pleasures. Sari-clad ladies zoomed by on scooters, theirmangalsutras ﬂying. The sitaphal ice cream and cheese pizzas in the local market were a weekend delight. My memories were of an endlessly benevolent city, full of neighbourly bonhomie and friendly street chatter. But that day in February, I saw a smoke- ﬁlled sky, closed shops and mobs on the street. The city frightened me—the Ahmedabad of my joyous childhood dreams had turned into an ugly nightmare. I can claim to have had a ringside view to India’s ﬁrst televised riot, a riot in the age of ‘live’ television. From 28 February for the next seventy-two hours, we were witness to a series of horriﬁc incidents, all of which suggested a near complete collapse of the state machinery. We listened to tales of inhuman savagery, of targeted attacks, of the police being bystanders while homes were looted and people killed. For three days, with little sleep, we reported the carnage that was taking place before our eyes even while self-censoring some of the more gruesome visuals.
On 1 March, I was caught in the middle of a ‘mini riot’ in the walled city areas of Dariapur–Shahpur. This was a traditional trouble spot inAhmedabad—Hindu and Muslim families lived cheek by jowl and even a cycle accident could spark violence. That morning, neighbours were throwing stones, sticks, even petrol bombs at each other, with the police doing little to stop the clashes. One petrol bomb just missed my cameraperson Narendra by a whisker even as he bravely kept shooting. I saw a young girl being attacked with acid, another boy being kicked and beaten. We managed to capture much of this on camera and played out the tape that evening while carefully excising the more graphic visuals. A riot is not a pretty picture. We had ﬁlmed a family charred to death inside a Tata Safari, but never showed the images. We did exercise self-restraint but clearly the government wanted a total blackout. ‘Are you trying to spark off another riot?’ Pramod Mahajan angrily asked me over the phone. I felt it was important to mirror the ugly reality on the ground—an impactful story, I hoped, would push the Centre into sending the army to the battle-scarred streets.
I did not encounter Modi till the evening of 2 March when he held a press conference at the circuit house in Ahmedabad to claim that the situation was being brought under control with the help of the army. That morning, though, he had rung me up to warn me about our coverage which he said was inﬂammatory. In particular, he told me about the report of an incident in Anjar, Kutch, of a Hanuman temple being attacked, which he said was totally false. ‘Some roadside linga was desecrated, but no temple has been touched. I will not allow such malicious and provocative reporting,’ he said angrily. I tried to explain to him that the report had come through a news wire agency and had been ﬂashed by our Delhi newsroom without verifying with me. A few hours later, the chief minister’s ofﬁce issued orders banning the telecast of the channel.
Modi’s press conference also took place against the backdrop of afront-page story in that morning’s Times of India indicating that the chief minister had invoked Newton’s law to suggest that the violence was a direct reaction to Godhra. ‘Every action invites an equal and opposite reaction’, was the headline. Modi denied having made any such remark to the reporter. Naturally, the mood at the press conference was frosty and hostile.
After the press conference, I reached out to Modi, assuring him we would be even more careful in our coverage. I offered to interview him so that he could send out a strong message of calm and reassurance. He agreed. We did the interview, only to return to the ofﬁce and ﬁnd the tape damaged. I telephoned Modi’s ofﬁce again, explained the problem and managed to convince him to do another interview, this time in Gandhinagar later that night.
We reached the chief minister’s residence in Gandhinagar a little after 10 p.m. We dined with him and then recorded the interview. I asked him about his failure to control the riots. He called it a media conspiracy to target him, saying he had done his best, and then pointed out that Gujarat had a history of communal riots. I asked him about his controversial action–reaction remark. He claimed what he would later repeat in another interview, to Zee News, ‘Kriya aur pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahte hain ki na kriya ho na pratikriya’ (A chain of action and reaction is going on. We want neither action nor reaction).
We came out of the interview almost convinced that the chief minister was intent on ending the cycle of violence. Less than an hour later, the doubts returned. Barely a few kilometres from his Gandhinagar residence on the main highway to Ahmedabad, we came upon a roadblock with VHP–Bajrang Dal supporters milling about, wielding lathis, swords and axes. It was well past midnight. Our driver tried to avoid the blockade when an axe smashed through the windscreen. The car halted and we were forced to emerge. ‘Are you Hindus or Muslims?’ screamed out a hysterical youth sporting a saffron bandana. For the record, we were all Hindus, except our driver Siraj who was a Muslim. The group, with swords threateningly poised in attack mode, demanded we pull down our trousers. They wanted to check if any of us were circumcised. In the pursuit of male hygiene, at my birth my rationalist parents had ensured I was.
The crowd confronting us was neither rationalist nor normal. They were in fact abnormally enraged, feverishly excited youth, hopping about with their swords and axes, drunk on the power they had over us. Their raised swords were repeatedly brandished above our heads. Pushes, shoves and lunges towards us indicated that we were in serious danger from a militia both neurotic and bloodthirsty.
When in danger, ﬂash your journalist credentials. Even though I did not feel particularly brave at the time, I gathered up my courage for the sake of my team and drew myself up to my full six feet—thankfully I was at least a head taller than most of them. I aggressively yelled that I and my team were journalists, we were media and, guess what, we had just interviewed the chief minister. Such behaviour a short distance away from his house was unacceptable and a disrespect to the CM’s ofﬁce. How dare they disrespect their own CM? ‘Agar aap kisi ko bhi haath lagaoge, toh mein chief minister ko complain karoonga!’ (If you touch anyone, I will complain to the chief minister), I said, trying to sound as angry as possible.
The gang wasn’t willing to listen. ‘Hamein chief minister se matlab nahi, aap log apna identity dikhao’ (We don’t care about the chief minister. Show your identity cards). I showed my ofﬁcial press card and got my camera person Narendra to play a clip from the interview with Modi. ‘Look,’ I shouted, ‘look at this interview. Can’t you see we are journalists?’ After ﬁfteen tense minutes and after watching the tape, they seemed to calm down a bit and we were ﬁnally allowed to go. Our trembling driver Siraj was in tears. My own fear at a near-death experience was now replaced by a seething rage. If, just a few kilometres from the chief minister’s house, Hindu militant gangs were roaming freely on the night of 2 March, then how could the chief minister claim the situation was under control? We were unnerved and visibly shaken. Images of those crazed faces and their shining weapons haunted me for days afterwards.
My coverage of the riots ruptured my relationship with Modi. Till that moment, we had been ‘friends’ (if journalists and netas can ever be friends!). We had freely exchanged views and would happily speak in Gujarati to each other, and he would regularly come on my shows. Now, a wariness crept in. As a politician who didn’t appreciate any criticism, he saw me as emblematic of a hostile English-language media, and I always wondered if he had wilfully allowed the riots to simmer. A relationship based on mutual respect turned adversarial. He could not ‘forgive’ me for my riot reporting and I could never separate his politics from what I had seen in those bloody days. When my father passed away in 2007, Modi was the ﬁrst politician to call and condole, but somehow the ghosts of 2002 would always haunt our equation.
With the beneﬁt of hindsight, and more than a decade later, I have tried to rationalize the events of the 2002 riots. Was chief minister Modi really trying to stop the riots? Is the government claim that in the ﬁrst three days of violence, sixty-two Hindus and forty Muslims were killed in police ﬁring not proof enough that the Modi government was not allowing the rioters to get away scot- free? I shall not hasten to judgement, but I do believe the truth, as is often the case, lies in shades of grey. And the truth is, no major riot takes place in this country without the government of the day being either incompetent or complicit, or both.
My verdict is that the Modi government was utterly incompetent because it was aware that the Godhra violence could set off a cycle of vengeance and yet did not do enough to stop it. In the places from where I reported in Ahmedabad, I just did not see enough of a police presence to act as a deterrent to the rioters. The violence only really began to ebb once the army stepped in; the Gujarat police was caught with its khaki uniform betraying a saffron tinge. I remember asking the Ahmedabad police commissioner P.C. Pande about the failure of his force. His reply on a live television show stunned me. ‘The police force is part of the society we come from. If society gets communalized, what can the police do?’ I cannot think of a greater indictment of our police constabulary by its own leadership.
There was a personal angle as well. My grandfather P.M. Pant had been a much-admired and decorated police ofﬁcer in Gujarat for more than three decades, eventually retiring as its chief in the 1970s. He had the reputation of being a tough, no-nonsense ofﬁcer and had seen the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad. He died in 1999, but my stoic, self-contained grandmother was still in Ahmedabad in an apartment block dominated by Bohra Muslims—a Hindu Brahmin lady who lived in neighbourly solidarity with her Bohra neighbours, each feasting on the other’s biryani or patrel. I told her what Mr Pande had told me about the situation in the city. Her reply was typically direct. ‘Well, you go and tell him that your baba [grandfather] would have never allowed any such excuse.’
The other question—whether the Modi government was complicit—is slightly more difﬁcult to answer. Lower courts have cleared Modi of any direct involvement and though there are troubling questions over the nature of the investigations, I shall not quarrel with the judicial system. It is never easy to pin criminal responsibility for a riot on the political leadership, be it Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 or Modi in 2002. Modi had, after all, been in power for just ﬁve months when the riots occurred, Rajiv for less than twenty-four hours. Modi’s supporters claimed to me that their leader was not fully in control of the administration when the violence erupted. ‘He wanted to stop it, but he just did not have the grip over the system. Not every minister would even listen to him,’ claimed one Modi aide, pointing out that the chief minister had won his by-election only a few days before Godhra happened. Modi himself claimed to me that he wanted the army to be brought in right away, but the forces were tied up at the border because of Operation Parakram which had been launched in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament.
What is probably true is that in February 2002, the real boss of Gujarat was not Modi but the VHP general secretary Praveen Togadia. If there was a ringmaster for the 2002 riots it was Togadia, adoctor-turned-Hindutva demagogue. The moustachioed Togadia with his whiplash tongue was the one who called the shots—several ministers were beholden to him, and the street cadres were his loyalists. At the time, maybe even Modi feared him.
The VHP and the Bajrang Dal had built a strong network in Gujarat from the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1980s, and Togadia, therabble-rousing doctor-demagogue had emerged as an alternative power centre in the state. On the streets, the VHP’s foot soldiers were most visible and led the attacks against the minorities. In the Naroda Patiya massacre in Ahmedabad in which ninety-seven people were killed, the list of those arrested (and later convicted) included a roll call of prominent VHP members of the area. Unlike Modi, who would not accept any involvement in the violence, Togadia was more forthright and declared he was ‘proud’ of his role. ‘If we are attacked, you expect us to keep quiet? These Islamic terrorists have to be taught a lesson,’ he told me in an interview.
In later years, Modi successfully reined in Togadia, even managed to virtually isolate him, but in the bloody days of 2002, he failed to do so. Whether that was deliberate or otherwise is a question only he can answer, but the political beneﬁts of a consolidated Hindu vote bank were obvious. Modi will perhaps never answer the question, but it is very likely that barely ﬁve months into his tenure, he decided that it was wise political strategy, or perhaps rank opportunism, not to take on someone who reﬂected the blood-curdling desire for revenge on the street. Even if he wanted to stop the violence, he chose to play it safe by not challenging the VHP goons right away. Moreover, Togadia was part of the wider Sangh Parivar which claimed proprietorial rights over the BJP government in the state. Togadia and Modi had both cut their teeth in the same Parivar.
The violence perpetrated by their own cadres also meant that Modi’s benefactors in Delhi, Vajpayee and Advani, were faced with the tough choice of whether to act against their chief minister. The closest Vajpayee came to ticking off Modi was almost a month after the riots when he visited Ahmedabad and spoke of a leader’s ‘raj dharma’ to keep the peace.
The immediate aftermath of the riots did, however, spark off a churning within the BJP and the political system. The Opposition was baying for his blood; international human rights agencies were demanding a full inquiry; the media and judiciary were relentlessly raising discomﬁting questions. Matters needed to be settled one way or the other at the BJP national executive in Goa in April that year. I followed Modi from Gujarat to Goa, again a journey with a slight personal touch. While I was born in Ahmedabad, my late father had been born in Margao in Goa. It was in the balmy air of Goa that Modi’s destiny was to be settled.
The plush Hotel Marriott in Panaji’s Miramar Beach area was the rather unlikely setting for deciding the fate of the Gujarat chief minister in early April 2002. It was faintly amusing to see old-time RSS leaders in their dhotis and kurtas slinking past bikini-clad women sunbathing by the hotel swimming pool. But there were no poolside distractions for the gathered denizens of the Sangh whose focus of attention was squarely on Modi. He arrived at the conclave of the party’s national executive, and claimed to me that he was ready to resign. I recall sending out what we call a ‘news ﬂash’, even as Modi delivered a short speech at the meeting. ‘I want to speak on Gujarat. From the party’s point of view, this is a grave issue. There is a need for a free and frank discussion. To enable this, I will place my resignation before this body. It is time we decided what direction the party and the country will take from this point onwards.’
Was this offer of resignation spontaneous, or was it part of an orchestrated strategy to force the party to support him in its hour of crisis? The top BJP leadership had been divided on the issue while the RSS had put its weight behind Modi. L.K. Advani was clear—if Modi resigned, the party could not face the electorate in Gujarat. ‘The “pseudo-secularists” may not approve, but Modi has emerged as the defender of “Hindu interests” in the aftermath of Godhra—he is a hero for our cadres,’ was the gist of Advani’s argument. Vajpayee was equally clear—Modi’s failure to control the riots was a blot on the ruling coalition at the Centre, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and would only lead to its break-up. In the end, the Advani logic won out—the national executive rejected Modi’s offer to resign. The party had re-emphasized its faith in its core Hindutva ideology—the ideology that unites and galvanizes its cadres, the voter-mobilizing machine, far more effectively than any other plank.
Years later, I sat over a drink at the India International Centre bar with Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s all-powerful principal secretary, to ﬁnd out why the former prime minister fell in line so easily. ‘Make no mistake, Vajpayee wanted Modi to resign. But while he may have been in charge of the government, the party did not belong to him. The BJP is not the Congress. If the party and the RSS come together even a prime minister like Vajpayee cannot have his way,’ said Mishra, a triﬂe wistfully. In a television interview after his surprise defeat in the 2004 general elections, Vajpayee admitted that not removing Modi at the time was a mistake. I see it slightly differently. I believe that in the madness of the summer of 2002, Vajpayee could not have afforded to force Modi to resign. Godhra and the riots which followed had transformed Modi into a Hindu Hriday Samrat—he now represented the soul of the brotherhood in saffron. Through the trauma of the riots, a new leader had been born. Vajpayee, by contrast, was simply the acceptable public face of a coalition government.
The decision to reject Modi’s offer of resignation electriﬁed the Goa gathering. Cries of ‘Modi Zindabad’, ‘Desh ka neta kaisa ho, Narendra Modi jaisa ho’ (A nation’s leader should be like Narendra Modi) rent the air. Foreign guests in the Marriott lobby must have wondered if they had strayed into a victory rally. That evening, I
Modi had rediscovered his mojo and also his campaign plank. From that moment onwards, he would inextricably identify himself with six crore Gujaratis, their sense of hurt and their aspirations. By targeting him, Gujarat was being targeted; he was not the villain of 2002 but its victim. He had defended the state against ‘terrorists’ and had protected the people, and yet ‘pseudo-secularists’ were gunning for him. He didn’t even need to directly refer to the riots and Hindu–Muslim relations; Godhra had ensured the underlying message was clear to the voters. If it needed to be ampliﬁed, the likes of Togadia were always there.managed to catch up with Modi. The trademark aggression was back. ‘Some people in the media and pseudo-secular elite have been carrying on a conspiracy against the people of Gujarat. We will not allow it,’ he said with a triumphant ﬁrmness.
The political narrative in place, Modi decided to call for elections in July that year, eight months ahead of schedule. When the Election Commission rejected the call for an early election, citing law and order concerns and the continued need to rehabilitate riot victims, Modi chose to confront the commission. The chief election commissioner was no longer just J.M. Lyngdoh, but was derisively referred to by Modi as James Michael Lyngdoh, the emphasis being on his Christian identity. It was to be the beginning of a phase in Modi’s politics where the lines between what constituted politically correct behaviour and what was simply politically expedient would be routinely crossed.
Itching for a confrontation, Modi decided to embark on a statewide Gujarat Gaurav Yatra ahead of the elections which had been rescheduled for December that year. Modi claimed he wished to invoke a sense of Gujarati ‘pride’ which he said had been unfairly tarnished by the criticism over the riots. What he really wanted to do was remind the predominantly Hindu electorate of the state how he had ‘defended’ their interests even at great personal cost. A new slogan was invented—‘Dekho, dekho kaun aya, Gujarat ka sher aya’ (See, see, the lion of Gujarat has come). Modi was now pitched as a Gir lion and a modern-day Sardar Patel rolled into one.
The Gaurav Yatra was launched from the Bhathiji Maharaj temple in the village of Fagvel in early September. I was seated in the front row in the press enclosure when Modi spotted me. Pointing to me in his speech, he said, ‘Some journalists come from Delhi and target our Gujarat. They say we failed to control the riots and damage the image of peace-loving Gujaratis; but you tell me, will we allow this conspiracy against Gujarat to continue?’
The combative tone had been set. For the next four weeks, Modi used the Gaurav Yatra to portray himself as the ‘saviour’ of Gujarat. When the Akshardham temple was attacked on 24 September while the yatra was on, Modi turned adversity into opportunity. It gave him a chance to attack Pakistan, and in particular, its president Pervez Musharraf. In every speech, he would refer to ‘Miyan’ Musharraf and blame him for terrorism. The public target may have been Musharraf, but the message was really aimed at local Muslim groups—the Godhra train burning, after all, was still fresh in public memory.
The distinctly communal edge to the Gaurav Yatra surfaced in its most vitriolic form during a rally in Becharji on 9 September. This is where Modi referred to the riot relief camps as ‘baby-producing centres’ with his infamous one-liner, ‘Hum paanch, hamare pachhees’ (We ﬁve, our twenty-ﬁve). In an interview to his admirer Madhu Kishwar, Modi later claimed that he was not referring to relief camps but to the country’s population problem. He told her, ‘This phrase was not uttered just to target relief camps. I say it even now that the population of our country is increasing rapidly. Today, if a farmer has ﬁve sons, they will soon, between them, produce twenty-ﬁve.’
Few will buy Modi’s explanation. The entire Gaurav Yatra was taking place against the backdrop of the riots. The tone of Modi’s speeches was set by the fragility of communal relations and the climate of fear and hate that had been sparked off by the violence. That he was allowed to get away with such blatant appeals to religion reﬂects the limitations of the law and the bankruptcy of the Opposition Congress in the state. The agenda had been set; only the people’s verdict remained to be delivered.
That verdict was delivered on 15 December 2002. The night before, the Congress general secretary in charge of Gujarat, Kamal Nath, had rung me up exuding complete conﬁdence. Nath is now a nine-time Lok Sabha MP, and had a swagger which is rapidly disappearing from the Congress. ‘Rajdeep, let’s do a dinner bet. You’ve got this one horribly wrong. We are winning it,’ he said boastfully. Only a day earlier, I had predicted on our election analysis programme on television that Modi might win a two-thirds majority. Most exit polls had been a little more conservative in their estimates. My logic was simple—the post-Godhra riots had divided Gujarat on religious lines and the Hindu vote bank had been consolidated by Modi. Nath preferred to focus on micro details of constituencies and regions.
On that occasion, I was proven right and the veteran politician wrong (though he still has to buy me the dinner!). The BJP won an impressive 126 seats, the Congress just ﬁfty-one. The BJP swept the riot-hit belt of north and central Gujarat, lending further credence to the theory that the violence had only served to polarize the electorate. Modi’s strategy had worked. Only, he wasn’t quite done yet.
That evening at the BJP headquarters, Modi agreed to do a ‘live’ interview with me. The mood amongst the cadres was not just jubilant but vengeful too. A large mob that had gathered outside wanted to ‘teach a lesson’ to those who had tried to ‘malign’ Gujarat and its chief minister. Some of the journalists were forced to escape through the backdoor of the ofﬁce to avoid the mob. Rather than calming the situation, Modi proceeded to sermonize. ‘Today, all of you must apologize to the people of Gujarat who have given you a beﬁtting answer.’ Surrounded by his supporters, Modi was an intimidating sight—steely eyes, a ﬁnger pointing at the camera, the face impassive. It was one of the most difﬁcult interviews I have ever done.
That year, Modi was chosen by India Today news magazine as its Newsmaker of the Year. In a cover story on the Gujarat chief minister in its April 2002 issue, he was described as ‘The Hero of Hatred’. Its tag line said: ‘A culpable Modi becomes the new inspiration for the BJP even as this offends the allies, infuriates the Opposition and divides the nation.’ After almost three decades in public life, the organizational man turned television spokesperson turned chief minister was now a national ﬁgure. An RSS pracharak who was once accused of lacking a mass base, who had only fought his ﬁrst election earlier that year, ﬁnally had an identity.
Modi’s victory in 2002 gave him the chance to establish himself as the Supreme Leader of Gujarat. He did not squander it. Over the next few years, he set about systematically decimating all opposition within and outside the BJP. The ageing Keshubhai Patel was conﬁned to the occasional rumbling at being sidelined. Suresh Mehta, another former chief minister, was too gentle to offer any real threat. Kashiram Rana, a former state BJP president, was denied a Lok Sabha ticket. Gordhan Zadaphia, who was minister of state for home during the riots and was close to Togadia, was forced out of the party and eventually formed his own group. ‘Modi is the ultimate dictator—he will not tolerate anyone even questioning his decisions or leadership,’ Zadaphia once told me. Ironically, just before the 2014 elections, Zadaphia returned to the BJP and was forced to publicly acknowledge Modi as his leader.
Even Togadia, who had played a crucial role as a rabble-rouser during the 2002 elections, was completely marginalized. Modi even went to the extent of razing roadside temples in Gandhinagar built by local VHP karyakartas, if only to send out the message that he wasn’t going to do any special favours to the VHP for supporting him. Senior VHP leader Ashok Singhal likened Modi to Mahmud Ghazni for the demolition—ironical, since the rise of Modi had begun in 1990 during the rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya. Years later, an incensed Togadia told me in an interview, ‘We have nothing to do with Modi. He may be Gujarat’s chief minister, we stand for all Hindus!’
Perhaps the most controversial challenge to Modi’s leadership came from Haren Pandya, the BJP strongman from Ahmedabad. Pandya, like Modi, was strong-willed and charismatic. He was atwo-time MLA and had been home minister in the Keshubhai Patel government when Modi became chief minister. Modi wanted Pandya to vacate his safe Ellisbridge seat in Ahmedabad for him. Pandya refused and a rather ugly battle ensued.
Pandya’s own role during the riots was questionable—more than one account claims that he was among the mob leaders in the city. And yet, a few days after the riots, he dropped into our ofﬁce in Ahmedabad with what sounded like a potential bombshell of a story. ‘I have evidence that Modi allowed the riots to fester,’ he claimed. On the night of 27 February, he said, Modi had called senior ofﬁcials and told them to allow ‘the public anger’ to express itself. I asked him to come on record. He refused but gave me a document which showed that the Gujarat government was carrying out a survey to ﬁnd out how the riots would politically inﬂuence the electorate.
What Pandya did not tell me on record, he told a Citizens’ Tribunal headed by a retired judge in May that year. In August 2002, Pandya was removed from the government for breaching party discipline. In December, Modi ensured that Pandya was denied a ticket to contest the elections, even going to the extent of admitting himself to hospital to force the party leadership to agree to his demand. On 26 March 2003, while he was on his morning walk, Pandya was gunned down. The killers have not been caught till date, even as Pandya’s family pointed a ﬁnger at Modi. A senior police ofﬁcer told me, ‘It was a contract killing, but who gave the contract we will never know.’
Remarkably, through all the chaos and controversy, Modi remained focused on his own political goals. He had won the battle within the BJP; he wanted to make an impact beyond. In this period between 2003 and 2007, Modi spent a considerable time understanding governance systems. Working a punishing eighteen- hour schedule at times, he was determined to chart a new path. He did not trust his fellow ministers, but he developed an implicit faith in the bureaucracy. Maybe he felt bureaucrats were less likely to challenge his authority. He collected around himself a core team of bureaucrats who were ﬁercely loyal. ‘Modi gives clear orders, and then allows us the freedom to implement them. What more can a bureaucrat ask for?’ one of the IAS ofﬁcers told me. No ﬁle would remain on his table for long. Fastidious about order and cleanliness, he liked a spotless, paper-free table.
Three IAS ofﬁcers, K. Kailashnathan, A.K. Sharma and G.C. Murmu, formed a well-knit troika—‘Modi’s men’ is how they were perceived. Another bureaucrat, P.K. Mishra, guided him through the early period. All low-proﬁle, loyal and diligent, they were just the kind of people Modi liked around him. ‘They are more powerful than any minister in Modi’s cabinet,’ was the constant refrain in Gandhinagar. It was true—Modi’s cabinet meetings lasted less than half an hour; he would spend a considerably longer time getting presentations from bureaucrats. For an outwardly self-assured individual, Modi seemed strangely paranoid about his political peers. At one stage, he kept fourteen portfolios with him—his ministerial colleagues, naturally, were unhappy.
One of the disgruntled ministers came to see me once in Delhi. ‘Rajdeepji, I am planning to leave the government. Modiji doesn’t trust me, he still thinks I am a Keshubhai man,’ the senior minister said. A few months later, when I met the minister, I asked him why he hadn’t resigned yet. ‘Well, I have realized that in Gujarat, if you want to remain politically relevant, you have no choice but to be with Modi,’ he said.
The minister was right. The ever-pragmatic Gujarati’s business, they say, is business. The brightest minds ﬁnd their way into dhanda(entrepreneurship)—politics hardly attracts any talent. The Congress, in particular, was a party in sharp decline, haunted by the familiar malaise of not empowering its local leadership. Their main leader, Shankersinh Vaghela, had spent most of his career in the BJP. ‘How can we take on the RSS when we have made an RSS man our face in Gujarat?’ Congressmen would often tell me.
Compared to his political competition, Modi was not only razor-sharpbut always quick to seize on new ways to motivate his administration and push them towards goals. Whatever the political beneﬁts he gained from the riots, it seemed as if he was always anxious to rewrite his record, reinvent his personality, his tasks made even more urgent by the desire to forget and even obliterate events which paradoxically and fundamentally shaped his political persona.
His bureaucrats were given twin tasks—implement schemes that would deliver tangible beneﬁts to the people in the shortest possible time, and ensure the chief minister’s persona as a development- oriented leader gets totally identiﬁed with the successful projects. In this period, the Gujarat government launched multiple projects, from those aimed at girl child education to tribal area development to irrigation and drinking water schemes. The aim was clear—show Gujarat as a state committed to governance and its leader as a vikas purush (man of development).
A good example of the extent to which Modi was willing to go to push the ‘bijli, sadak, shiksha aur pani’ (electricity, roads, education and water) agenda was his Jyotigram Yojana, designed to ensure twenty-four-hour power supply, especially to rural Gujarat. A ﬂat rate, approximating to market costs, was to be charged. Farmers who refused to pay would be penalized while power theft would lead to jail.RSS-backed farmer unions protested; the Opposition stalled the assembly. Unmindful of the protests, Modi went ahead with the scheme, convinced of its long-term beneﬁts. ‘Only someone with Modi’s vision could have pulled off Jyotigram,’ says one of his bureaucrat admirers. The Gujarat Model was born and would pay rich dividends to its leader in the years ahead. Today, Gujarat’s power supply compares favourably with other states as does a double-digitagricultural growth rate. And even if there are dark zones as reﬂected in troubling child malnutrition ﬁgures, the overarching impression is of a state on the fast track to prosperity.
But the Gujarat Model was not just about growth rates and rapid development. It was also about recasting the image of the man who was leading Gujarat. It was almost as though development was Modi’s shield against his critics who still saw him through the prism of the riots. For example, Modi took great pride in his Kanya Kelavani (girl child education) project. Every year from 2003, in the torrid heat of a Gujarat summer, IAS ofﬁcers would fan out to convince parents to send their children, especially girls, to school. Modi himself had laid out the blueprint. In his book Centrestage, Ahmedabad-based journalist Uday Mahurkar says that Modi told his ofﬁcers, ‘Why should a child cry when she goes to school for the ﬁrst time? We need to bring a smile on their face.’ Cultural programmes were started to make the toddlers feel at home in school. Dropout rates fell and the enrolment percentage rose from 74 to 99.25 per cent in a decade. ‘Why don’t you show positive stories about Gujarat? Kab tak negative dikhate rahoge?’ (How long will you keep showing only negatives?), Modi asked me on more than one occasion.
It seemed as though Modi wanted to constantly prove a point. The riots had left a big question mark on his administrative capability, and he now wanted to undo the damage. This wasn’t just about his national ambitions—it was also about conquering the demons that nestled within, a yearning to prove his critics wrong.
An interesting aspect of this was Modi’s relationship with industry, well documented in a Caravan magazine proﬁle in 2012. In March 2002, barely a few weeks after the riots, at a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) meet in Ahmedabad, Cyrus Guzder, a much- respected industrialist, had raised a pointed question—‘Is secularism good forbusiness?’—and likened the attacks on Muslim homes to a ‘genocide’. It didn’t stop there. I was speaking at a panel discussion at the CII annual summit in Delhi in April 2002 on ‘Gujarat at the Crossroads’ when Anu Aga of the Thermax group, who later became a member of Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council, lashed out, ‘The Gujarat riots have shamed all of us.’ She got a standing ovation from an audience that is normally very careful in displaying its political preferences openly.
In February 2003, the confrontation between Modi and industry appeared to worsen. Rahul Bajaj and Jamshed Godrej, two of the country’s senior most corporate leaders, spoke out on the 2002 riots in the presence of the Gujarat chief minister. Describing 2002 as a ‘lost year’ for Gujarat, Bajaj asked, ‘We would like to know what you believe in, what you stand for, because leadership is important.’ Modi listened to the rush of criticism and then hit back. ‘You and your pseudo-secular friends can come to Gujarat if you want an answer. Talk to my people. Gujarat is the most peaceful state in the country.’
Modi was now seething. He carried this sense of hurt and anger back with him to Gujarat; this rage would become a driving force channelized towards greater self-reinvention, towards revenge on those who questioned him critically. ‘Een Dilliwalon ko Gujarat kya hai yeh dikhana padega’ (We have to show these Dilliwallas what Gujarat is), he told one of his trusted aides. Within days, a group of Gujarati businessmen led by Gautam Adani established a rival business organization—the Resurgent Group of Gujarat—and called on the CII’s Gujarat chapter to resign for ‘failing to protect the interests of the state’. The CII was on the verge of a split, forcing its director general Tarun Das to broker peace through senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley. Das was forced to personally deliver a letter of apology to Modi. ‘We, in the CII, are very sorry for the hurt and pain you have felt, and I regret very much the misunderstanding that has developed.’ Modi had shown corporate India who was the boss.
That year, the Gujarat government launched its Vibrant Gujarat summit, designed to showcase the state as an investment destination and re-emphasize the traditional Gujarati credo—‘Gujarat’s business is business’. I attended the summit in 2005 and was struck by the precision with which the event was organized. This was not just another government initiative—it was a glitzy event where one individual towered over all else. Every speaker would begin their speech by praising the chief minister, some a shade more effusively than others—Anil Ambani of Reliance Communications even going to the extent of likening Modi to Mahatma Gandhi and describing him as a ‘king of kings’.
While corporate India fell in line, the media was proving more recalcitrant. On 12 October 2007, a few weeks before the Gujarat assembly elections, I had the occasion to moderate a session with Modi at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. Dressed, appropriately perhaps, in a saffron kurta, I was looking forward to the dialogue. The topic was ‘Regional Identity and National Pride’. While Modi spoke eloquently on Mahatma Gandhi and development, I could not resist asking whether he had transformed from the politician of 2002 when he had been described by his opponents as a ‘hero of hatred’ and even a ‘mass murderer’. The question touched a rawnerve—a combative Modi questioned my credentials as an anchor and wondered whether I would ever change and be able to look beyond the post-Godhra riots even while my kurta colour had changed!
At least, Modi did not walk out of the gathering. Less than ten days later that’s precisely what happened when senior journalist Karan Thapar was interviewing him for CNN-IBN’s Devil’s Advocate. I had warned Karan before the interview that Modi was still very sensitive about Godhra and the riots and maybe he should broach the subject a little later in the interview. But Karan has a deserved reputation as a bit of a bulldog interviewer—relentless, unsparing and direct. Less than a minute or two into the interview, he raised the question of Modi’s critics viewing him as a mass murderer despite his reputation as an efﬁcient administrator, and whether he would express any regret over the handling of the riots. There was only one way the interview was going from that point on. Asking for a glass of water, Modi removed his microphone, thanked Karan and ended the interview. ‘The friendship should continue. You came here. I am happy and thankful to you. These are your ideas, you go on expressing these. I can’t do this interview. Three–four questions I have already enjoyed. No more, please,’ was the ﬁnal word.
The walkout might have embarrassed any other politician. Not Modi. When I rang him up a short while later, his response was typically sharp. ‘You people continue with your business, I will continue to do mine.’ The Gujarat assembly election campaign was about to begin and Modi wasn’t going to be seen to be taking a step backwards.
A few days later, Sonia Gandhi on the campaign trail said those ‘ruling Gujarat are liars, dishonest and maut ka saudagar’ (merchant of death). Modi was enraged. It was one thing for a journalist to refer to him as a mass murderer in an interview, quite another for the Congress president to call him a ‘killer’. The positive agenda of development was forsaken—in every speech Modi now claimed that the Congress had insulted the people of Gujarat. ‘How can a party which can’t act against terrorists talk about us?’ thundered Modi. ‘They call us maut ka saudagar. Tell me, is it a crime to kill a terrorist like Sohrabuddin?’ The reference was to a killing by the Gujarat police that had been labelled a fake encounter. Muslim terrorism, Gujarati pride, Modi as a ‘victim’ of a pseudo-secular elite and the ‘saviour’ of Gujarat—it was almost 2002 all over again.
The election results in December 2007 confirmed that the Congress had self-destructed once again and Modi’s strategy had worked brilliantly. The BJP won 117 seats, the Congress just ﬁfty- nine. Chief minister once again, Modi was now brimming with conﬁdence. ‘Gujarat ki janta ne mere virodhiyon ko jawab diya hai’ (The people of Gujarat have answered my critics) was his ﬁrm response while ﬂashing the victory sign. He was now the unrivalled king of Gujarat. But like all ambitious politicians, he wanted more.
There are two dates that deﬁne Narendra Modi’s twelve-year chief ministership of Gujarat. The ﬁrst was 27 February 2002—the Godhra train burning and the riots conferred on Modi, for better or worse, the image of a Hindutva icon. The second was 7 October 2008. On that day, the Tata group announced that they would be setting up the Tata Nano plant at Sanand in Gujarat. Its small car project had faced massive opposition over land displacement at its original choice of Singur in Bengal, fuelled by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Looking for an alternative site, the Tatas plumped for Gujarat as Modi offered them land at a very nominal rate.
That day, Ratan Tata, the Tata chairman, held a joint press conference with Modi. ‘This is an extremely momentous day for us. We have been through a sad experience, but so quickly we have a new home,’ said a delighted Tata, adding, ‘there is a good M (Modi) and a bad M (Mamata)!’
A beaming Modi responded, ‘I welcome the Tatas. For me, this project entails nationalistic spirit.’ The truth is, it was more than just a business deal or even ‘nationalism’ for Modi. This was a symbolic victory, the moment when he ﬁnally got what election triumphs alone could not win for him—credibility as a trustworthy administrator. His attitude during the 2002 riots had won him the hearts of the traditional BJP constituency who saw him as a leader who had stood up to ‘Islamic terrorists’ and ‘pseudo-secularists’. Being endorsed by Ratan Tata and rubbing shoulders with him gave Modi the legitimacy he secretly craved for amongst the middle class and elite well beyond Gujarat.
The Tatas, after all, are not just any other corporate. They are seen as one of India’s oldest and most respected business brands, the gold standard, in a way, of Indian business. Their Parsi roots can be traced to Gujarat. As Tata admitted, ‘We are in our home. Amhe anhiya na chhe (We are from here).’ Modi, never one to miss an opportunity, also reminded the audience of how a hundred years ago Jamshedji Tata had helped Gujarat by donating Rs 1000 during a famine to save cattle. It was all very cosy and convenient. Tatas desperately needed land; Modi thirsted for reinvention.
That year, Ratan Tata was chosen the CNN-IBN Indian of the Year in the business category, principally for the manner in which he had established a global presence for the Tatas. I asked him for his views on Modi. ‘He is a dynamic chief minister who has been good to us and for business in general,’ was the answer. CII 2002–03 seemed far, far away.
This was, then, the moment when Modi’s ambitions began to soar beyond Gujarat. A new self-conﬁdence shone through, of a leader who believed his isolation was over. In this period, Modi travelled to China and Japan, countries whose economic and political systems he had long admired. This was also when Modi’s public relations machinery began working overtime to make him more ‘acceptable’ across the world. The US had denied him a visa in 2005 in the aftermath of the riots, but his NRI supporters, including the Overseas Friends of the BJP, began to vigorously lobby for him at Capitol Hill.
In 2007, Modi had reportedly hired a global PR agency, APCO, at a cost of $25,000 a month. The brief was simple—market Modi globally and sell the Vibrant Gujarat image. Modi insisted that he had not hired any PR company for his personal image building. But it’s true that he was undergoing a visible makeover. His speeches became more deliberate; the chief minister’s ofﬁce would release well-sculpted images of a ‘softer’ man—reading a book, playing with children, ﬂying kites—all designed to showcase a New Age politician. Select journalists and opinion leaders were ﬂown to Gandhinagar and would write glowing reports on Modi’s capabilities. Modi even got a book on climate change ghostwritten which was released by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. He also took his ﬁrst tentative steps towards a social media outreach by signing into Facebook and Twitter in 2009.
Always a natty dresser, he became even more trendsetting with his Modi kurtas, designed by the Ahmedabad tailoring shop Jade Blue. At different functions on a single day, he would always be dressed for the occasion, often changing three or four times a day. He was always fond of pens, only now the brand in the pocket was Mont Blanc, the sunglasses were Bulgari, the watches ﬂashy and expensive. A former aide told me at the time, ‘Narendrabhai sees himself not just as the chief minister of Gujarat—he is the CEO of Gujarat Inc.’
This was also a period when the Gujarat government launched an aggressive campaign to promote tourism. In December 2009, the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Paa was released. The ﬁlm’s producers were pushing for an entertainment tax exemption. Bachchan met the Gujarat chief minister who readily agreed on one condition— Amitabh would have to be a brand ambassador for the Gujarat tourism campaign. Till then, Bachchan was seen to be ﬁrmly in the Samajwadi Party (SP) camp—his wife Jaya was a party MP, as was his close friend Amar Singh. He had even done a ‘UP Mein Hain Dum’ (UP Is Strong) campaign for the SP in the 2007 assembly election. Now, he would be identiﬁed with ‘Khushboo Gujarat Ki’ (The Scent of Gujarat), with Ogilvy and Mather being hired for a massive ad blitz. Modi had scored another political point.
While Modi was repositioning himself, the BJP was caught in a time warp. The party had chosen L.K. Advani as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2009 elections in the hope that he could be projected as a ‘tough’, decisive leader in contrast to Manmohan Singh’s softer, gentler image. The voter, however, did not seem enthused by the prospect of an octogenarian leader spearheading a new India. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Indo-US nuclear deal, ‘Singh is King’ was the refrain, especially among the urban middle classes. TheUPA-led Congress scored a decisive victory in the polls. The BJP was left wondering if it would ever return to its glory days.
Modi may not publicly admit it, but this is where he began sensing his chances as a potential BJP prime ministerial candidate. The Advani–Vajpayee era was drawing to a close and there was an emerging leadership vacuum. Pramod Mahajan, the man I had expected to lead the BJP into the future, had died in tragic circumstances in 2006, killed by his own brother. Sushma Swaraj was acrowd-puller but appeared to lack the political heft to lead the party. Arun Jaitley was not a mass leader and needed Modi’s support to get elected to the Rajya Sabha. Rajnath Singh as party president had just led the BJP to a defeat in the general elections. Modi was, in a sense, the natural choice.
That Modi was now looking squarely at Delhi became clearer in September 2011 when he launched a Sadbhavana Yatra (Peace Mission), aimed primarily at reaching out to the Muslims. The yatra was the most direct attempt made by Modi to shed the baggage of the post-Godhra riots. It was shadowed by controversy when Modi refused to wear a skullcap offered to him by a Muslim cleric, Maulvi Sayed Imam. When I asked him about it later, Modi’s answer was emphatic.‘Topi pehenne se koi secular nahi banta!’ (You don’t become secular by wearing a cap.) The words would cross my mind later when during the 2014 campaign, Modi wore different headgear, including a Sikh turban, at almost every public meeting.
The larger message being sent out during the Sadbhavana Yatra, though, was obvious—the Hindutva icon was unwilling to be a prisoner of his origins. He wanted to position himself as a more inclusive leader. The overarching slogan was ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ (Together with Everyone, Development for All).
Zafar Sareshwala, a BMW car dealer in Ahmedabad, was among those involved in the execution of the yatra. Once a ﬁerce critic ofModi—he claims to have suffered ﬁnancial losses during the 2002 riots—he had become Modi’s Muslim ‘face’ on television. Whenever he came to Delhi, he’d bring me Ahmedabad’s famous mutton samosas and insist that Modi had evolved into a new persona. ‘Trust me, Modi is genuine about his desire to reach out to Muslims and has even met several ulemas in private. Even the VHP and the BJP cadres were opposed to the yatra, but Modi did not buckle. He wants to forget the past and only look to the future,’ Sareshwala would tell me.
On the streets of Gujarat, opinion was more divided among minority groups. If you met someone who had been personally affected by the riots, like Baroda university professor Dr J.S. Bandukwala, he would tell you that Modi needed to at least show some remorse for failing to stop the violence. ‘My home was destroyed by the rioters. Not once did Modi even try and contact me to express any sense of solidarity for our loss,’ says the professor with quiet dignity.
In February 2012, I did a programme on the tenth anniversary of the riots. My journey took me to Gulberg Society where sixty- nine people had been killed, with several in the list of those missing. Among the missing was a teenage boy Azhar, son of Dara and Rupa Mody, a devout Parsi couple. Along with my school friend, ﬁlm- maker Rahul Dholakia, I had met the Modys just after the riot ﬂames had been doused. On the wall of their tiny house was a picture of young Azhar with the Indian tricolour at the school Republic Day parade just a month before the riots. Rahul had decided to make a ﬁlm on the Mody family’s struggle to locate their son. The ﬁlm Parzania would go on to win a slew of national awards, but couldn’t be released in Gujarat because the theatre owners feared a backlash.
I had stayed in touch with the Modys and was shooting with them at Sabarmati Ashram. No one from the Gujarat government had even tried to help them all these years. Their only support had come from human rights activists, such as Teesta Setalvad, who were branded asanti-national by Modi’s men. ‘Couldn’t such a big man like Modi come even once and speak to us?’ Rupa Mody asked me tearfully. As a father of a lanky teenage son myself, I couldn’t hold back my tears.
For the same news documentary I also travelled to a slum colony, Citizen Nagar, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Here, the riot-affected families had been literally ‘dumped’ in subhuman conditions near a large garbage mound into which the city’s waste ﬂowed. ‘Modi talks of Vibrant Gujarat, but for whom is this Vibrant Gujarat, only for the rich?’ one of the locals asked me angrily. In Juhapura, a Muslim ghetto in the heart of Ahmedabad—sometimes referred to as the city’s Gaza Strip—the mood was equally unforgiving. ‘Modi goes everywhere marketing himself, why doesn’t he come to Juhapura?’ was a question posed by many out there.
Interestingly, the more afﬂuent Muslims had made their peace with Modi. Many Gujarati Bohra Muslims are traders and businessmen—they were ready to break bread with Modi so long as he could assure them a return to communal harmony and rapid economic growth. In my grandmother’s building in the walled city, there were many Muslim middle-class families who had reconciled themselves to a Modi-led Gujarat. ‘We have no problem with Modiji so long as we get security,’ one of them told me. Many younger, educated Muslims too seemed ready to give him a chance. ‘It’s ten years now since the riots, it’s time to move on,’ was how a young management graduate explained his position.
And yet, how do you move on when your house has been razed and your relatives killed? Modi has claimed that his government’s track record in prosecuting the guilty was much better than the Congress’s in 1984. One of his ministers, Maya Kodnani, was among those who had received a life sentence. And that Gujarat had seen no major communal outbreak since 2002.
The truth is a little more bitter and complex. Yes, 1984 was a terrible shame, but then so was 2002. Any comparisons in death toll ﬁgures would reduce human lives to a tragic zero-sum game—‘my riot’ versus ‘your riot’. Yes, Gujarat has also seen more successful prosecutions, but many of these were achieved only because of the tireless work done by a Supreme Court-supervised Special Investigating Team (SIT) and indomitable activists like Setalvad, and not because of the efforts of the Gujarat police. Honest police ofﬁcers who testiﬁed against the government were hounded. Lawyers who appeared for the victims, like the late Mukul Sinha, were ostracized. As for Gujarat being riot free, I can only quote what an Ahmedabad- based political activist once told me, ‘Bhaisaab, after the big riots of 2002, why do you need a small riot? Muslims in Modi’s Gujarat have been shown their place.’
A Sadbhavana Yatra was a good ﬁrst step but clearly not enough to provide a healing touch. Nor would a token apology sufﬁce. In my view, Modi needed to provide closure through justice and empathy. He did not provide Gujarat’s riot victims with either. Their sense of permanent grievance would only end when they were convinced that their chief minister wasn’t treating them as second-class citizens. In the end, the high-proﬁle, well-televised yatra only served as a conscious strategy to recast Modi’s image as a potential national leader who was now ready to climb up the political ladder.
How should one analyse Modi’s complex relationship with Muslims? Reared in the nursery of the RSS, political Hindutva had been at the core of his belief system. His original inspiration was the long-serving RSS chief Guru Golwalkar, whose rather controversial writings, especially Bunch of Thoughts, see the Indian Muslim as anti-national. Modi had been careful not to endorse Golwalkar publicly after becoming chief minister, but one sensed he could never distance himself fully from his early training (not a single Muslim was ever given a ticket by Modi in Gujarat).
Gujarat, too, had seen decades of Hindu–Muslim conﬂict. In the land of the Mahatma, the Gandhian values of religious tolerance and pluralism coexisted uneasily with a xenophobic hatred for the ‘Mussalman’. Certainly, every time I visited Sabarmati Ashram in the heart of Ahmedabad, it felt like an oasis of harmony amidst the prevailing communal separateness. For the socially conservative Gujarati middle class, Modi seemed to represent a Hindu assertiveness they could identify with.
A year after his Sadbhavana Yatra, in September 2012, Modi had hit the road again. Ahead of the December 2012 assembly elections, there were concerns that a poor monsoon and anger against local MLAs could hurt the Modi government. Modi realized the need to directly connect with the voter. He launched a statewide Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra, ostensibly meant to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the saint, but primarily designed to set the stage for the Gujarat election campaign to follow. Modi had long claimed to be inspired by Vivekananda, and by publicly identifying with him, he was looking to appropriate his legacy of ‘inclusive’ religiosity. This was again typical of Modi—he had this instinctive ability to create awell-marketed political event that would raise his proﬁle.
I met Modi on the yatra in Patan district of north Gujarat. The choreography of the interview, not just the content, was fascinating. We had travelled around 150 kilometres to catch up with Modi. Dressed in a colourful turban, he was surrounded by supporters. When we ﬁnally got time with him in his spacious van, we set up to do the interview in a fairly large space at the rear end of the vehicle which allowed for proper seating and lighting. Modi refused to do the interview there. ‘I will be sitting next to the driver—you will have to do the interview where I am!’ he said. ‘But there isn’t space for me to sit next to you, so how do I do the interview?’ I asked. Modi smiled. ‘That is for you to work out!’
The interview was eventually done with me on the footboard of the vehicle, the cameraperson seated on the dashboard. It was perhaps Modi’s rather characteristically perverse way of reminding me of my station in life as a humble journalist who was interviewing a Supreme Leader. Or perhaps of putting the English-language television media, which had haunted him all these years, in its place. To this day, Modi’s relationship with the English-language media continues to be adversarial, even though there are many in its ranks who would be happy to be counted as his cheerleaders.
While he predictably stayed silent on any question related to an apology for the riots, turning away rudely from the camera, he did answer my question on whether he planned to move to Delhi if he won the Gujarat elections a third time. His answer was typically combative. ‘Have people of this country assigned you and the media the task of ﬁnding the next prime minister’?’ When I repeated the question of whether the next PM would be from Gujarat, his answer was cryptic. ‘I am only focused on Gujarat and dream of building a strong state.’
Interestingly, I had asked him a similar question about his prime ministerial ambitions during the Hindustan Times Summit in 2007. Then, too, he had spoken of his love for Gujarat and how he was not looking beyond the state. Then, I had believed him. Now, his responses seemed to be more mechanical and lacking conviction. As he turned away from me, I could see a celebratory glint in his eyes—it suggested to me that, with victory in Gujarat almost assured, Modi was now ready to stake a claim for the biggest prize in Indian politics.
Rajdeep Sardesai’s book 2014: The Election That Changed India will be released in November. You can pre-order it at http://www.flipkart.com/2014-election-changed-india-english/p/itmdznfmvvsb5pwb?pid=9780670087907