Encounter

Tavleen Singh is a leading columnist and writer.

‘Although I have worked in Delhi, I have never belonged there’

The morning I got a call from the Chief Minister’s office in Gandhinagar
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Tagged Under | Narendra Modi | BJP | 2014 elections
Modern sanctum: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at his spanking new office in Gandhinagar (Photo: SHAILESH RAVAL/INDIA TODAY GROUP/GETTY IMAGES)
Guru pranam: Vasundhara Raje greets Narendra Modi before her oath-taking ceremony as Rajasthan CM in December 2013 (Photo: DEEPAK SHARMA/AP)

The only time I ever met Narendra Modi for a proper conversation was in August last year. I have known him for years but never talked to him in any real sense because the only time I tried to do an interview with him was soon after the 2002 violence and that did not go well. No sooner did I enter his office than I was obliged to leave. I was still standing in the doorway when he looked up from his desk, fixed me with an icy stare, and said, “You have known me from my Delhi days, so how could you let yourself believe that I deliberately allowed the violence to happen?” I tried telling him that I had driven from Godhra to Ahmedabad the day before, stopping in villages with ‘Hindu Rashtra’ attached to their names and talked to aggressive young men who told me they would be in jail if they had not been protected by Modi. He gave me another icy stare and went back to examining the papers on his desk.

Since then, over the years I have run into him at social and political occasions but our conversations never went beyond pleasantries. The longest conversation we had was after my book Durbar came out, when at a lunch in Delhi he made it a point to tell me that he had read it and gave me a knowing smile. So when a lady called me from the Chief Minister of Gujarat’s office on a sweltering day last August and told me that the Chief Minister would like to see me, I jumped at the chance for more reasons than one. The most important of these was that I had travelled recently through rural Rajasthan and been astounded by how many people said they would like to see Modi as Prime Minister.

My purpose on that rural tour was to find out if the winds were blowing in favour of Vasundhara Raje who was on a yatra to rally support ahead of the Assembly polls that brought her back to office last December. I planned to spend a day with her on this yatra but thought it would be interesting to wander about on my own as well. She said this was a good idea and suggested that I get off the highway in Behror and meander through villages in the Alwar district that she had not yet visited. So this was what I did, and everywhere I went I met people who told me that they had watched Modi’s speeches on television and this had convinced them that he could make India a developed country. It was the first indication for me of a subterranean Modi wave and confirmation of this came the next day when I went with Vasundhara Raje on her yatra. She addressed huge meetings in small towns and villages, and at them I heard the slogan ‘Mukhya Mantri Vasundhara Raje, Pradhan Mantri Narendra Modi’.

Vasundhara Raje cleverly wove this idea into her speeches and talked of how Gujarat had been transformed in 15 years. “Think what could have happened for India if you had given the BJP the 53 years that you have given Congress!” Late that night, after the last rally, I drove with her son, Dushyant Singh, to a little palace hotel in a village called Alsisar where I met a group of Rajasthani ex-rulers who said that in their areas there were early signs of a Modi wave. Reports of this kind must have reached the BJP headquarters as well, and this was almost certainly the reason Modi was named as the party’s candidate for Prime Minister despite opposition from LK Advani and his powerful cabal.

So on the morning that I got the call from the Gujarat Chief Minister’s office, I was more than eager to have a chat with him because I was aware that I could be meeting the future Prime Minister of India. When the girl on the phone, Kavita Dutta, asked how soon I could get to Ahmedabad, I told her that I could go the very next day if he could see me. At Ahmedabad airport, I was received by an official who accompanied me to Gandhinagar and took me to a government guesthouse that had been refurbished with the usual PWD lack of taste. There was white marble on the floors, shiny rexene furniture and a vast bathroom with powder pink tiles. The air-conditioning worked magnificently and there was a large TV screen, but I found myself nostalgic for the old-fashioned inspection bungalows and circuit houses that I remember from my early years as a reporter.

This was not a day for wallowing in nostalgia or for reading the book I had brought along because although I had hours to wait before my meeting, this happened to be the day on which Parliament was passing the Food Security bill. As someone who had vociferously opposed this cripplingly expensive piece of useless legislation, I watched the debate with interest. I had heard that Modi was opposed to the bill but there was no indication of this in the Lok Sabha that day. None of the BJP speakers came up with real reasons why the bill should be “torn up and thrown in the dustbin”; so after Sonia Gandhi made her passionate appeal on behalf of India’s supposedly starving millions, the BJP happily voted for a bill that if implemented could bankrupt India without doing anything to ameliorate the shame of every other Indian child being officially malnourished.

My meeting with Modi was fixed for 5 pm, so by 4.30 an official appeared to take me to his office. We drove through Gandhinagar’s leafy avenues, past institutes of higher learning, to a shiny new secretariat. On large TV screens in the lobby, Modi’s speeches played. I found this narcissism worrying but had no time to dwell on the thought because I had barely taken a sip of my tea in the Chief Minister’s waiting room when I was ushered into Modi’s office. I was surprised that the officials drinking tea with me did not accompany me into the Chief Minister’s presence. It was just the two of us, seated on either side of a small table with a Chinese bamboo of good fortune on it. The office had large glass windows and the uncluttered calm of a meditation chamber. In the hour I spent with Modi not a single telephone or official interrupted our conversation.

Since I did not know why I was here, I was not sure what to talk about, so to cover my confusion I began by reminding him that the last time I had come to this secretariat was when he turned me away from the door. He laughed and said that was in the old secretariat. He pointed to it through the glass windows. He did not say why he had asked me to come and see him but told me that he had read a piece I wrote in my Indian Express column days earlier in which I said that hackles had gone up in Lutyens’ Delhi because its denizens could not bear the thought of Modi entering this exalted space. He was an outsider, I had written, of the wrong class and caste. He said, “You are absolutely right in what you wrote… although I have worked in Delhi, I have never belonged there.”

Then conversation turned to the coming General Election and he said he had sensed a real niraasha (despair) in the people. He said this was particularly true in young people who seemed to have given up completely on their lives ever improving. He said that this despair saddened him, and that he hoped, when he became Prime Minister, to do something about it. I asked if he was sure that he would win, and he said, “Yes. The BJP will form the next Government.”

The conversation was a conversation and not an interview, so it drifted around a bit as conversations usually do. He talked of the people who opposed him and said their opposition did not bother him and he talked of things he would like to do to make the economy strong again, and then he talked of more personal things.

He told me what he has now repeated in many interviews. He talked of the poverty he remembered well from his growing years, the teashop at the railway station where he worked after school, the teachers who told his father he should be allowed to study and not work. He talked of how he was drawn to the RSS at an early age because he liked their spirit of nationalism and service. And, of how he had run away from home when he was still a teenager and wandered about India for two years with hardly any money and no roof that he could call his own. He told me how he had come back to Ahmedabad and worked in the RSS office, doing menial tasks, and how because in his spare time he wrote a book he was encouraged by his mentor, Vakil Sahib, to continue his studies by correspondence from Delhi University. He told me politics was never his choice of career because he preferred pursuits of a more spiritual kind, but when the RSS inducted him into the BJP he decided to become a politician with as much sincerity as he had done other things in his life.

Since this was a conversation and not an interview, I took no notes until I was at the airport waiting to catch my flight back to Mumbai. And then, as I wrote them down, I thought of the impression that Modi had left on me in the longest conversation I’d had with him. So here it is. I was impressed with his ability to listen. I was impressed with the accuracy of his analysis that there was despair in the country and that at the root of this was the economic downturn and a loss of faith in political leaders. And I was impressed with his confidence that if he came to power he would be able to change things.

Later during the campaign I saw him at rallies in Jaipur and Kanpur, and I was in Benares when he came to file his nomination papers, but I have not had another chance to speak to him. What I have had a chance to do during this election campaign is travel around the country and ask ordinary people why they invest so much hope in Modi, and the best answer I was given was by a young man in Benares, who said, “We believe that he is a magician when it comes to development and India needs development desperately.” What I have had a chance to do is discover that when people talk of vikaas and parivartan, what they have bought is the new dream that Modi has defined for them of an India that can one day become prosperous and powerful. It is the opposite of the old dream Rahul Gandhi has sold during this campaign, a dream that limits its boundaries to ‘garibi hatao’.

So now that Modi is on the verge of leading India, do I think he will be the leader that so many Indians hope he will be? It is a difficult question to answer because hope is such a fragile thing that one wrong step can dissipate it. But, having been a political reporter since Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, and having clear memories of elections past, what I will say is that I believe that India needs today a leader who comes from outside the rarefied confines of Lutyens’ Delhi. Never before has India had so large a population of angry, impatient middle-class voters who are convinced that those who control political power from within those rarefied confines do not hear their voices.