Keshubhai Patel, a former chief minister of Gujarat from the Bharatiya Janata Party, died on 29 October. Narendra Modi had succeeded Patel as chief minister in 2001. In this excerpt from “The Emperor Uncrowned,” a profile of Modi in The Caravan’s March 2012 issue, Vinod K Jose, the executive editor of the publication, charts the trajectory of Modi’s relationship with Patel.
Modi had risen quickly within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, but to gain real political power, he had to cross over from the purely ideological realm of the RSS into the BJP. That process began in 1987, when he was appointed as the organisation secretary for Gujarat—the person within the state RSS responsible for overseeing the BJP. Unlike the BJP state or national presidents, who are public figures, the organisation secretary is supposed to operate privately, directing the party from behind the scenes and serving as a “bridge” between the RSS and its political affiliate.
The eight years that Modi spent as organisation secretary in Gujarat coincided with an era of rapid growth for the state BJP, which went from 11 seats in the state assembly in 1985 to 121 a decade later. Though there were two very senior leaders at the helm of the state party—Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela, both former Gujarat BJP presidents—Modi became a third power centre, exerting influence over the formation of alliances and the selection of candidates for state and national elections.
During this period, there were three serious episodes of communal rioting in Gujarat, each with greater death toll than the last: 208 dead in 1985, 219 in 1990 and 441 in 1992. The increasing communal friction played to the advantage of the BJP, which consolidated a growing share of the Hindu vote in the state. To capitalise on the tension, the BJP organised a series of roadshows, beginning with two statewide campaigns in which Modi played a key behind-the-scenes role: the Nyay Yatra in 1987 and the Lok Shakti Rath Yatra in 1989. In 1990, when the BJP president LK Advani began his Ayodhya Rath Yatra, which would eventually bring down the Babri Masjid, he set out from the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, and Modi facilitated the first stretch of the campaign. The following year, Modi received his first national assignment, as the organiser of an ambitious cross-country Ekta (Unity) Yatra helmed by the BJP’s new president, Murli Manohar Joshi, which began at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu and culminated with the raising of the tricolour in Srinagar.
By the early 1990s, the Hindu nationalist movement had fully arrived as a formidable political force: in electoral terms, the BJP had enough seats in Parliament to decide the fate of coalition governments, and had come to power in its own right in a few states. Out on the street, it had demonstrated its capacity to mobilise huge crowds with religious fervour, as in the case of the Babri Masjid, or with militant nationalism, in the case of Joshi’s long march to Kashmir.