Man and myth collide as India's Narendra Modi eyes final ascent to power

Apr 03 2014, 17:56 IST
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SummaryNarendra Modi spent his childhood in a modest three-room dwelling made of mud and brick nestled in a narrow, crowded lane in the western Indian town of Vadnagar.

Narendra Modi spent his childhood in a modest three-room dwelling made of mud and brick nestled in a narrow, crowded lane in the western Indian town of Vadnagar.

The tea stall his father ran with the help of his sons is just as it was then, a small shed of patched blue-grey tin on the platform of the ramshackle railway station nearby.

Fast forward nearly 60 years and Modi stands on the cusp of leading the world's biggest democracy, after an election beginning on Monday that looks set to make his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the country's biggest.

Family members, friends and ordinary people interviewed by Reuters in Modi's native state of Gujarat put his remarkable journey down to single-minded ambition, an eye for opponents' weaknesses and his grasp of economic management.

Underlining how he divides opinion, critics also speak of an authoritarian who at times rides roughshod over the democratic process and espouses moderation while concealing an agenda less benign.

One of the defining moments of Modi's career was in 2002, shortly after he became Gujarat's chief minister, when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were slaughtered in mob violence.

Modi has always vehemently denied that he allowed, or even encouraged, the bloodshed, driven by a Hindu nationalist agenda, and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.

Throughout the election campaign he has sought to project himself as moderate, not a champion of the Hindu majority.

An analysis of 68 Modi speeches for the weekly magazine Outlook found that he did not utter the word "Hindu" once and "development" came up more than 500 times.

But suspicion lingers, particularly within India's sizeable Muslim minority, many of whom fear a rise in communal tensions.

"He talks in several tongues," said M. Hasan Jowher, a rights activist in Gujarat. "He can be a rabid fundamentalist. I hope Indians make the right choice."

Modi's aides did not respond to a request for comment for this article. A spokeswoman for the BJP, Nirmala Sitaraman, said Modi had "nothing to be defensive about" over the 2002 slaughter in Gujarat, and she rejected as "fear mongering" attempts to brand him as a fundamentalist.

MAN OR MYTH?

Man and myth often collide when it comes to Modi. His presence is ubiquitous after a meticulously stage-managed election campaign that has electrified the country and dominated the media, yet little is known about his personal life.

Narendra Damodardas Modi, now 63, was born and brought up in Vadnagar,

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