There was a time when he sold tea at a railway station in Gujarat as his family battled poverty. After toying for a while with the life of a renunciate, he finally took to politics. A determined man who had slogged for years amid great odds, Narendra Damodardas Modi, 63, is now all set to rule India as its 15th prime minister. It is a dream story that may well have been scripted in Bollywood. Today, Modi, who was an administrative novice when he took charge of Gujarat over 13 years ago, towers over men much older to him in politics, the result of a meteoric rise with few parallels.
Aides say it is Modi's ability to convert adversity into opportunity that has helped him to leapfrog from one milestone to another. Modi was born September 17, 1950 into a lower middle class family in the small Gujarat town of Vadnagar, the third of six children. The family lived in a poorly ventilated house, the floor plastered with cow dung, the kerosene lamp lit the whole day emitting smoke and grime.
His father made tea at the Vadnagar railway station which Modi, called Kumar as a child, sold to train passengers for one anna (six paise) or two annas for "special tea". Modi, six years old then, would daily wake up at 5 am. Even while at school, he would skip out when he heard the hooting of an incoming train, sell tea and then quickly return to the class. But poverty pursued the family. His mother, Hiraben, the one person Modi holds in highest esteem, worked at other homes, and cleaned utensils. She also fetched water from a well for a private office.
When the young Modi desired to take an examination to join the Indian Army, his father had no money to send him to Jamnagar town. In despair, he turned to sadhus, Hindu renunciates, who frequented Vadnagar. Over time, Modi became a recluse. At age 17 he told his family that he wanted to leave home in search of truth. This he did in 1970. He wanted to become a monk. Modi had already rebelled against his family's attempts to marry him off to a child bride. The marriage was never consummated, say his biographers.
He returned to Vadnagar only in 1975, during the 18-month emergency era (1975-1977) of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, dressed as a Sikh – to avoid arrest. By then, his earlier love for the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) had led him to its mother forum, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh or RSS, the Hindu ideological lodestar, which was to shape his life. According to biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the years from 1967 to 1971 were somewhat mysterious in Modi's life. He would disappear for months, making his way to the Himalayas and other spots in search of spirituality.
In the mid 1990s, Modi went to the Gir forest and slept in an old temple. "I actually enjoy loneliness," he said. Once Modi formally joined the RSS, he moved into the Hedgewar Bhawan in Nagpur. He would make tea, breakfast and evening snacks for senior colleagues besides sweeping and cleaning the 10-room building. His formally joined the BJP in 1987 and became, within a year, general secretary of its Gujarat unit. He crisscrossed the state on a two-wheeler motor-scooter, helping to build the party brick by brick.
Modi began to get noticed for his analytical mind and organizational skills. On the suggestion of colleagues, he pursued his education too, and became a post graduate in political science from Gujarat University. Modi was told by the Sangh to attend BJP meetings and rallies to learn the art of politics from up-close. Modi's first big opportunity came when L.K. Advani undertook the Rath Yatra (chariot campaign to build the Ram temple) from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990 and then helped Murli Manohar Joshi on his much less successful Kanyakumari-to-Srinagar Ekta Yatra.
In 1995 he became the BJP's national secretary and, three years later, a general secretary. He held the post until October 2001 when he was chosen to be the chief minister of Gujarat. Then came the horrific communal riots in Gujarat in February 2002, almost leading to Modi's sacking by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was only Advani's intervention that saved Modi's job. Across India and beyond, Modi became a hate word, accused of collaborating with Hindu rioters - or just having his administration remain a mute spectator - to have Muslims killed.
Modi turned the political tables. He called a snap election and led the BJP to a spectacular win in the Gujarat assembly, a feat he repeated both in 2007 and 2012. Over time, Modi, having crushed all dissent within the BJP, portrayed himself as a symbol of development.
In May 2013, Modi was appointed, following pressure from the party rank and file, head of the BJP's election management committee, a move that ensured his transition from a heavyweight in state politics to a man seeking a larger national role. Within months, Modi was declared the BJP's prime ministerial aspirant, despite reservation from some party veterans like Advani, Joshi and Sushma Swaraj, leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha.
From then on, there was no looking back for him as he led almost a military-style campaign that will go down as one of the most sophisticated and technogically leveraged in history. Unlike most BJP and RSS leaders, Modi is always well groomed and has a sharp and appropriate dress sense. He was also among the first to possess a digital diary in the party and is active on social media that connects him with the aspirational youth of this country.
When it comes to food, he is happy with anything that is vegetarian. He is known to sleep very little, is a workaholic and a master orator in Gujarati and Hindi. In recent years, Modi has picked up English well, says an aide. Political analyst GVL Narasimha Rao, who is with the BJP and has often met Modi, says that BJP veteran "is a man with a clear mission, very clear headed". "He is very systematic and highly organised. There is no politician who is as organised as him... He delegates. He will make a phenomenal PM."
Although Modi has a legion of supporters in India and among Indians abroad, who feel he is the man of the moment for a country seemingly in decline, there are any number of India's liberal intelligentsia who see in his authoritarian ways and Hindu nationalist past a person whose philosophy militates against the country's secular ethos. "Modi has been able to polarise the voters. He has now a lot of strength. We hope he follows his development agenda and does not polarise the country further. As for minorities, there will be a feeling of insecurity in them," said political commentator Kuldip Nayar .