Narendra Modi, Insubordinate

Modi with senior BJP leaders Kanshi Ram Rana, Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela (left to right) in 1994. SHAILESH RAVAL / THE INDIA TODAY GROUP
07 April, 2014

Modi quickly acquired greater responsibilities within the RSS in Gujarat, including arranging reservations on buses and trains for travelling Sangh leaders, as well as opening letters sent to Hedgewar Bhavan. At around the same time, Modi went to attend the one-month officer training camp at RSS national headquarters in Nagpur, which was a prerequisite for him to take up an official position in the Sangh.

“The level one training was a basic requirement to be taken seriously in the RSS, and Modi completed it when he was 22 or 23,” a senior pracharak told me. Modi was then appointed as the RSS pracharak in-charge for Gujarat of the Sangh’s student front, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a position he held through the Emergency. The Sangh pracharak in-charge of a frontal organisation like the ABVP is supposed to function like an underground guide—to be like a vein hidden under the skin, exercising authority away from the public eye—but Modi’s personal style, which chafed at such restrictions, was already making itself evident.

“Modi had firm opinions on even smaller things, and the senior leaders thought that he was attention-seeking,” a second senior RSS pracharak, who was a member of the Gujarat ABVP in the 1970s, told me. “The Sangh leaders did not like it.”

The pracharak related an incident that took place during the Emergency: “We in the ABVP were told to organise agitations against the government, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and one day we were holding a meeting at the Bhullabhai Char Rasta in Ahmedabad,” he said. “We were supposed to speak against the government, but in a sober tone, because that was the Sangh style, and also the police and the intelligence agencies were watching over us. But while the meeting was on, Narendrabhai passed by on a cycle. He was furious at the composed serenity in our protest. He jumped onto the stage, grabbed the mike and began giving a rabble-rousing speech, spitting abusive words, and not hiding his anger against the government.”

“The audience loved it. But that night, at Hedgewar Bhavan, the senior Sangh leaders scolded Modi for his detrimental and unwarranted act—for a nearly-underground Sangh pracharak to come out in the open. ‘Forget about speaking,’ they lectured him, ‘you shouldn’t have even gone there. Even if the meeting failed, it would be okay, but discipline and obedience to one’s role is superior to all.’”

For all his allegiance to the Sangh and its ideology, the organisation’s structure and style—placing the group above the individual, restraining one’s anger, respecting the protocols established by the leadership—did not mesh with Modi’s personality.

Shankarsinh Vaghela, who was senior to Modi in the RSS and the BJP, and later became chief minister of Gujarat and one of Modi’s bitter rivals, recalled that even as a young man Narendra chafed at the strictures of the Sangh. “Modi used to miss the morning shakha quite often by sleeping late,” Vaghela said. “He always used to do things differently from others in the group—if all of us wore long-sleeved kurtas, he used to wear short sleeves, and when all of us wore khaki shorts, he wore white shorts. And I remember one day the visiting RSS leader Golwalkar questioning Modi in public for keeping a trimmed beard.”

But Modi’s lack of discipline was overshadowed by the reputation he had earned as an efficient and dutiful organiser: if the leaders entrusted him with a task, they could be sure it would be completed. When the Sangh had to covertly publish its literature during the Emergency, the work was sent to Gujarat, and Modi eagerly and efficiently managed the printing of millions of pamphlets in multiple languages, and then dispatched them safely and secretly to branches of the Sangh across the country, the second senior pracharak told me. On another occasion, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), another Sangh frontal organisation, held its statewide meeting in Gujarat, Modi was responsible for planning and organising the conference—a duty that included guarding a large amount of cash. The VHP leaders were anxious about the money, but Modi devised a rustic yet practical solution: he dug a hole in the ground and laid his bed over it.

Within a few short years, Modi’s skills as an organiser and worker had made him indispensable to the RSS in Gujarat. But he recognised that more would be required to turn himself from a manager for the Sangh leaders into a leader in his own right. Many of the senior men who he assisted during the Emergency had since been elected to the state assembly or to Parliament; others had become ministers in the Janata Party government in Gujarat. Modi returned to Nagpur and completed two additional courses of training at RSS headquarters. “He was ambitious,” the first senior pracharak told me, “and he knew that without the level two and level three training, he would never make the transition to the BJP and become a big leader.”

In 1978, one year after the end of the Emergency, Modi was appointed as the RSS pracharak in-charge for six districts in central Gujarat. Only three years later, at the young age of 31, he was promoted again to become the liaison between the Sangh and all its frontal organisations across the whole of Gujarat.

An extract from ‘The Emperor Uncrowned,’ published in The Caravan’s March 2012 issue.Read the story in full here.

Vinod K Jose was the executive editor of The Caravan from 2009 to 2023.