Narendra Modi says he developed a “strong hatred towards the Congress party” early on. He was only six years old when Vadnagar, the small village where he was born, was overwhelmed with political ferment. In the early 1950s, a new grassroots movement had emerged, demanding a separate state within the Indian federal system be carved out for the Gujarati-speaking population.
Gujarati nationalists were agitating against the domination of the Marathi-speaking ethnic group in what, at that time, was known as Bombay state. Young Modi was fascinated by their street action.
He joined the men-only processions which crossed his village almost every day. A friend of his father distributed political badges and he proudly wore one, as he chanted along with Gujarati slogans. He would watch with excitement as effigies of Congress leaders were set on fire.
The protests were not backed by any political party but had a strong presence of Hindu nationalists. Although the goal of the agitation was distant from the ideological objective of establishing Hindu supremacy, it provided an opportunity to regain the political legitimacy, lost when independence struggle leader MK Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Ghandi, or Great Man, was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic in January 1948.
The assassin, a man by the name of Nathuram Godse, had cut his political teeth with the fountainhead of Hindu nationalistic politics, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps – RSS). The organisation propagated the belief that Hinduism is the basis of Indian nationalism and followers of other faiths, mainly Islam and Christianity, are Hindus because Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life or the culture of the land. Its aim was to transform India into a Hindu state.
Although the RSS was absolved of conspiring to assassinate Gandhi, the majority of Indians had still turned hostile towards it. Participating in the amorphous protest for a separate state for the Gujarati-speaking population provided the RSS much needed political camouflage.
The strategy paid off. RSS branches mushroomed in several parts of India, including in Modi’s village. Soon, he started attending daily assemblies held especially for children. Besides indigenous games, the kids were taught rudimentary callisthenics and asked to pray for their country, Bharat Mata, or Mother India, portrayed as a Hindu goddess. From an early age, Modi adopted patriotism cast through the Hindu prism and it was just a matter of time before he would vow to spend a lifetime in the RSS and advocacy of Hindu nationalism.
When he was a teenager, his family arranged a marriage for him with Jashodaben Chimanlal, a girl from the same village. A few years later, however, Modi separated from his wife and embarked on building his career.
When he formally joined the RSS while in his early twenties, he withheld information about his marriage. Had he disclosed this, he could not have become a pracharak or preacher of the organisation because celibacy was an unofficial requirement for such a position.
Two decades later, the media discovered his “abandoned” wife, but by that time Modi had become a state-level apparatchik in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a rising political star, and so the RSS-BJP leadership had to look the other way.
Since his early years in RSS, Modi was more ideologically driven than his peers, but he was also pragmatic and knew that he could rise in the hierarchy through steadfast loyalty to important seniors.
The first opportunity to publicly display commitment to Hindu nationalistic politics on the national stage came in the early 1990s when he was still a mid-level party leader in Gujarat. He was tasked with coordinating a vital leg of a crucial campaign led by then-party president, LK Advani, for building a Hindu temple in place of the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh which was eventually forcefully demolished.
This agitation was central to the BJP’s emergence from the periphery into the political centre stage. It was due to Modi’s efforts that Hindu zealots across India welcomed Advani by applying the red ritual mark on their foreheads with blood drawn after slicing their right thumb.
By the time BJP went from being India’s largest opposition to being the leading party in the ruling coalition after the 1998 general elections, Modi had been transferred to New Delhi and appointed as one of the general secretaries, thereby gaining entry into the top echelon of the party.
He soon earned notoriety for his vitriolic language. During India’s military conflict with Pakistan in 1999, he famously said New Delhi would not “give them chicken biryani, we will respond to a bullet with a bomb”. That was the beginning of Modi’s image-building as a strongman, an Indian patriot who is out to get India’s enemies abroad and at home, chiefly Indian Muslims and their liberal friends.
Modi’s image as a “protector” of Hindus was consolidated during the Gujarat riots, which broke out in February 2002, less than five months after he was appointed chief minister of the state in place of another BJP member. He seized the opportunity to polarise the local population along religious lines and deepen decades-old prejudices against Muslims. He was, in fact, accused of giving Hindu mobs a free hand, although such allegations were never proven.
In the aftermath of the riots, Modi justified the idea of shutting down shelter homes for Muslims rendered homeless by the violence by claiming that these refugee camps were functioning as “baby producing factories”. His assertion gave a crude expression to a pet RSS theory: Muslim fertility rates in India were supposedly higher than that of the Hindus because of an Islamic conspiracy to inverse India’s demographic status-quo.
Riding on this Hindu nationalist wave, Modi led the BJP to victory in the Gujarat elections in December 2002, and then again in 2007 and 2012. But midway through his second tenure, he began displaying ambitions to shift to the national stage.
An astute leader, Modi knew India was not yet ready to accept a leader with a marked majoritarian bend. Consequently, he recast his persona – from being a Hindu nationalist leader to a stalwart of economic development. Instead of wooing Hindus, he began courting big businesses and sought to secure fresh investment in local industries.
He facilitated business deals, made single-window clearance the hallmark of his administration and bent rules on acquiring land for business projects. Backed by professional image builders, Modi pursued visible infrastructure projects such as road and canal building and electrification which veiled the serious deprivation the countryside was suffering from.
Well before the general elections in 2014, Modi eliminated all competition within the party and built a campaign centring on his twin slogan “development and change”. A highly publicised Gujarat-model, which was much more talked about than understood, became the cornerstone of his political platform, as he underplayed his Hindu nationalist politics. This enabled him to secure the support of a significant number of liberals.
At no point, however, did Modi forsake his ideological commitment. As prime minister, he alternated between pursuing development programmes and majoritarianism. As the 2019 elections neared, he realised his bid for another term was hamstrung by the not-too-impressive performance of his government, rising unemployment, growing rural distress and a deepening farm crisis.
This has pushed Modi to come a full circle. In this election campaign, he sounded very much like the man who led the BJP’s electoral charge in Gujarat in the aftermath of the 2002 riots. He displayed his childhood hatred for adversaries and their politics of socioeconomic inclusiveness.
For the first time after Modi demonstrated his national and international political ambitions, there is nothing dichotomous about his launching pad. His heart and head are finally completely in sync with one another.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.