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If there is any phase of Narendra Modi’s life about which there are no definitive accounts, it is from teenage to adulthood. Existing literature on Modi’s life that has been endorsed or authorised by him is full of glaring contradictions; personal accounts of childhood friends, teachers, immediate kin and acquaintances contain different stories. The years from 1967 to 1971 in Modi’s life are somewhat “mysterious”, and despite my pointed questions, he chose not to shed any light on it—save one, a confirmation that the out point in his life had been 1967 and the return point was in 1971. Modi told me: “A lot of people ask me, but I do not want to say anything about that period because at some point in my life I would like to write about this period—what I did, where all did I go.... But it started in 1967 and there were variations about the periods when I was away (from home)—at times I was away for about 15 months, then I stayed away for six months and then even lesser—and I came back. I kept coming and going....”
Modi told me that he continued with an annual ritual that he termed “meet myself programme”. When I asked him what he meant by this, he said that he spent time only with himself and went away to remote places without informing anyone about his whereabouts. “I used to go away during Diwali. When people celebrated, I would be somewhere away in a remote place, far away from any person—all by myself. I went alone, and only went to places where I would not find another human being—places like a jungle or some barren or abandoned place. I carried only a little to eat—some snacks to last for three to five days—I just chose a place where I could get water to drink. I carried only a little food—only the bare necessities—so that I did not feel that I had not eaten anything.” I asked Modi about the kind of places he used for his getaways: “Any kind—completely unknown places that I did not know. I never decided my address and did not tell anyone where I was going.” Naturally, I was curious because this was a potential headline-making story: ‘Modi disappears, aides clueless, but assure supporters of his safety’. I asked him when was the last time he went to meet himself and where was the venue? “That was in 1995-96, I was still in Gujarat (meaning that he had not yet been shunted out from the state unit of the BJP.) I went to the Gir forest and stayed where there were no humans. I went around and found an old temple where I could sleep, where no one could disturb me. No one came.” Perplexing though, it was getting interesting and I could not resist myself. What did he do? “I did nothing. That is what I did—nothing. Just think.” And then came my final question—what about now? “Now it is not in my destiny (naseeb nahi raha.) I do not know why people debate loneliness so much—I actually enjoy loneliness. People debate outside a lot—that Modi is a loner—I am not a loner in any way. But yes, I do not enjoy too much of a crowd.”
Asked if he sees Godhra as the turning point of his political career, Modi barricades himself behind gruffness and asks to please go by what the SIT, the courts and commissions say.
Halfway into my first interview with Modi, I gingerly approached the question which I feared may put an end to the writing of this book. I had played this scene in my mind’s eye several times and owed it to myself to ask the most forbidden question in the context of the man: there were two clear chapters in his political career—pre-Godhra and post-Godhra. Did he agree? He reacted predictably, by now set in his reactions whenever probed on such matters, and insulating himself deftly, cut me short and informed me with more than a hint of gruffness: “All this is available—you would be able to get the complete record. The SIT in its report has documented all this minute-to-minute—everything is available on the net.... And since it is authentic and has been done under the supervision of the Supreme Court, then you should go by that version only—why take my version? Then you may consult the Nanavati Commission report on Godhra.”
My hunch was right on both counts. First, in the way he skirted the issue, and second, in his referring to what was already part of judicial records. Not one to give up, I also asked around. Several sources corroborated my sense on this: Modi did not want to provide any fresh information which could be used against him in courts and also arm his detractors with more ammunition. The two voluminous reports that Modi mentioned have agreed with the claim of Modi and his political clan: that the attack on the Sabarmati Express on the morning of February 27, 2002, was not an accidental fire but a coordinated attack and that Modi was not guilty of any allegations levelled against him either by relatives of those who died in the post-Godhra violence or by groups of “concerned citizens”. One person I spoke to said Modi’s stonewalling tactics owed to the fact that he did not wish anyone a peep into his psyche at that time and also did not wish to add anything which may be used as evidence against him and his associates in any of the several pending legal cases.
For more than a decade since 2002, Modi’s public image has been shaped by two contrasting viewpoints. The first one is one based on belief, hearsay statements and oral assertions of people claiming to be eyewitnesses to events.The second is based on opinions and findings chiselled by inquiry committees and commissions that have reached their conclusions after relatively underplaying information and affirmations not backed by direct evidence. Both opinions have backers who have first taken an ideologically driven position and then gone on to use facts while buttressing their opinion. While the first opinion has led to extreme assessments of Modi being likened to a fascist or a mass murderer, the other school considers that painting Modi’s image in that hue is part of pseudo-secular propaganda and that he is actually a paragon of virtue and dedication.
I asked him about the boundaries of existence his political clan has enforced on non-Hindus and the need for them to accept Hindu ideas and ideals as their own. Modi replied: “Yes, that was the basic argument (in the course of the Ayodhya agitation, that Muslims also must accept Lord Ram as the symbol of national identity), the main philosophy—that he also was a mahapurush (great man) of this country. And that everyone in this country should believe in this—those who led this agitation campaigned for this.” At this point of the interview, it becomes evident that Modi strongly believes that if minorities wished to coexist and feel safe in the state governed by him, it was mandatory for them to abide by the beliefs and value systems of the majority community.
Meanwhile, I prodded on as Modi was opening up, and this was my best chance to get to the core of Modi’s understanding of Hindutva and I asked him: “India has a composite culture. There is tremendous social diversity. How do you look at inter-community relationships and the relationship of different social and religious groups with the State?”
Modi and other BJP leaders drape the party flag over the body of Haren Pandya, who was shot dead by an assassin. Pandya had refused to give up to Modi his Ellis Bridge seat.
Modi did not answer my question explicitly but said: “People can have different forms of puja and rituals can also be different—but that does not mean that the country, the traditions of the land can become different. Look at it this way—who is a Hindu? Those who believe in God are called Hindus and even those who do not believe in God. People also consider those who believe in idol worship as Hindus and even those who campaign against idol worship. Those who deify nature are termed Hindus and those who do not do so are also called Hindus. The truth is that Hindus do not have any real concern with the manner and processes of paying obeisance to God. Hindus have no problems if someone performs the namaz or goes to a church and reads the Bible to reach God. Hindus have no problem with this. We have no problems with the religious practices of people. We have no problems if anyone wants to retain religious identity—but the country, the traditions.”
Modi’s first hurdle after he became chief minister in 2001 was to find a safe seat and become member of the state assembly within the mandatory six-month period. But this was not easy for two reasons: Modi had never contested any election in his political career, and secondly, with the BJP traversing a rough terrain, finding a safe seat was difficult. As we have seen, Modi did not have a political home. He had been mostly Ahmedabad-based since joining the RSS in the early 1970s and ideally wanted to contest from a city seat—where he would personally know party workers—vacated by a party colleague. But an easy entry to the state assembly proved difficult for Modi because Haren Pandya, whose seat Modi wanted, did not oblige.
If such provocation was not enough, Pandya courted further trouble in the aftermath of the 2002 riots when he appeared before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice Krishna Iyer in May 2002. The deposition was made on an understanding that he would not be named. However, Modi’s intelligence wing, which an unnamed source says was fine-tuned after he became chief minister because Modi had been inspired by “Shivaji’s spy network” and wanted to develop an intelligence web like that, kept track of Pandya’s movements. Even his mobile phone was tapped—media reports claimed—as a result of which Modi got to know about Pandya’s deposition in almost real-time in May 2002.
Modi, however, was not satisfied at easing Pandya out of his government. In assembly elections, held in November-December 2002, the friend-turned-foe was not nominated by the party even after the intervention of stalwarts such as Advani and Vajpayee. The media reported gleefully that in order to avoid being pressurised into nominating Pandya, Modi checked into a hospital and stopped taking phone calls from New Delhi. After this, Pandya receded from the limelight and lived a quiet life till March 26, 2003, when everything was over for him. On that dreadful morning, an unknown assassin’s gun silenced Pandya when he was returning from a morning walk in the sprawling Law Garden, a public park in Ahmedabad.
The Haren Pandya murder case became the first of the several high-profile non-2002-riots court cases in Gujarat that cast a shadow over Modi’s regime. In police parlance, the Pandya murder case was termed a cut-out murder, where the chain from the conspirator or instigator to the eventual victim is impossible to establish. A police contact explained it like this: “A wants to murder Z and instructs B to execute the order. B tells C who does not know that A is the instigator. Instructions are passed in this manner from C to D and then to E and it goes down all the way. The final contract killer does not know where the order originated from. If investigations turns nasty, then all A has to do is to make any of the people in the chain a cut-out—take him out by beginning another chain.”