Of humble origins and kurta politics
Close on the heels of Narendra Modi's visit to the city, we pore our heads over Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay's book on the Gujarat Chief Minister. The insightful account charts the politician's rise, his days as an RSS pracharak, and coming-of-age as one of India's most impactful personalities on its political landscape
The Initiation (Pages 110-111)
One such young man who was yet to turn twenty-one and thereby secure voting rights, attended these meetings — including the ones addressed by Advani — and courted arrest. He was a worker in a small canteen in Ahmedabad: Narendra Modi and in the summer of 2012 he recalled his first real brush with national politics: ‘By that time (when he revived contact with Vakil Sahab to seek political guidance) the 1971 war was going on. I would come to New Delhi during those times — there was a Satyagraha going on for some time — and I also went and joined the Satyagraha to go and join the war there. But instead of sending us to the warfront the government arrested us and sent us to Tihar Jail. The Satyagraha was not being held under a political banner but all patriotic forces were part of it. If I remember correctly, besides Jana Sangh and RSS leaders and workers even people like George Fernandes were part of the agitation, Madhu Limayeji was also involved. Then after this was over, with Vakil Sahab’s guidance I started staying in the Hedgewar Bhawan in Ahmedabad and began doing the work of the Sangh that was given to me. I was assigned some responsibilities.’
Although menial and routine, the responsibilities given to Modi perhaps steeled him for the various roles he was later asked to play. The role knocked off whatever hubris he might have collected — or allowed to develop — in his life till that time. But as childhood friends narrated in Vadnagar, his traits were so strong, that he must have retained his pride even while doing the least important of tasks — simply because he must have considered it to be a stepping stone into a more powerful and meaningful future.
The unnamed senior Sangh Parivar functionary who has been quoted previously said that if a person ‘truly becomes humble because of life experiences, it shows all the way. But if humbling experiences are used only for self-gain and self-promotion then it means that it is only strategic usage and does not make any changes to the inner personality.’ But before the responsibilities were given, Modi had to take a decision of moving further away from his family fold and committing himself for a life with the RSS. The political awareness due to participation in the Satyagraha to extend support to the liberation movement of Bangladesh and the opportunity of having rubbed shoulders with stalwarts and several emerging political giants of India resulted in Modi making up his mind that politics was his true calling.
But instead of treading into unknown territory, he opted to be part of the Sangh Parivar and a few weeks after the celebrations of the victory of the 1971 war, Modi quietly joined the RSS formally as a pracharak. With that, he also moved bag and baggage to the Hedgewar Bhawan and ceased working with his uncle in the canteen he ran at the State Transport Department office. With this final step, his last link with his family was virtually severed — and remained so for many years. About his early days in the RSS and in Hedgewar Bhawan, Modi is candid about what he was asked to do initially: ‘My first responsibility was cleaning the office. When they were confident that I could do that work, then I was given the responsibility of making tea. Then after some more confidence — I started making breakfast and some evening snacks (nashta). Then slowly, I started looking at the mail that came in and then writing the replies. My work kept on increasing slowly.’
The Modi kurta (Pages 279-281)
The Modi kurta is actually a minor modification of the traditional long kurta designed by the man himself some time before he became chief minister. ‘He wanted us to make a half-sleeved kurta for him and we were initially not sure how it would turn out,’ Jitendra said before the other brother joined us. The other brother was entering the room while this information was being given and he informed me after the introductions were over that Modi always liked the length of his sleeve to be a shade longer that his upper arm — ‘it should turn or fold a bit’. When I asked if Modi was so particular, the brothers nodded in the affirmative.
As far as Modi is concerned, he offers an explanation that appears incredulous. He is on record saying that he devised the half-sleeved kurta to “save space in his jhola” in the years when he was a political nomad. ‘I had trouble washing my clothes so I thought I would have to wash less if I cut the sleeves by half. I also thought that they would occupy less space in my small bag. So, that is how the Modi kurta was originally made — I just took a pair of scissors and cut the sleeves.’ Does this explanation, which is obviously not corroborated by other accounts, demonstrate that in some nook of his mind, Modi feels diffident about his emphasis on style?
Does Modi feel that he is losing political credibility by not projecting the sarvahara (proletarian) look of his RSS brethren? Above all, by projecting a carefully cultivated public profile, is Modi trying to address himself more to the urbane while simultaneously projecting an unattainable persona among the not so well-heeled? There cannot be any definite answers to any of these and many similar questions except in the inner recesses of Modi’s mind. A possible explanation for Modi not projecting a proletarian look is reflected in the emphasis on glossy development programmes in his tenure. Mega projects like the tallest statue of Sardar Patel on the Sardar Sarovar and Gujarat’s Shanghai — the GIFT City project, are aimed at projecting the state as more assertive and masculine, the same image that Modi has projected through his sartorial and theatrical style. Macho leader of an aggressive people who are far distanced from the Gujarati of yore!
But where do women fit in the projection of public persona in Modi’s Gujarat? Essentially they remain mothers, sisters and wives of the men, playing a secondary role or at best a valued prop. On that count, Modi like most Indian political leaders across the political spectrum remains in the traditional patriarchal mode and the women who have fared well in Modi’s tenure as chief minister, for instance Anandiben Patel and Smriti Irani, have been little beyond add-ons on the political platform. Gujarat has had strong women, capable of even leading most heinous crime operations — Santokben Jadeja and Maya Kodnani being prominent, but they have been exceptions and suggestive that the only way out of patriarchal control was by breaking the social and legal boundaries of society.
However by 2004, the Modi kurta became a brand — barely three years after he took oath wearing a grey, half-sleeved kurta in a public stadium in Gandhinagar. Modi’s sartorial style became a subject of interest to the media and in one rare non-controversial report related to Modi, The Times of India reported in October 2004 that the half-sleeved long shirt had actually been first donned by a Jana Sangh leader from Patan in north Gujarat in the 1950s but it later had fallen out of favour of politicians. Initially there were few takers but from Navratri celebrations in 2004 people began asking for it in shops and responding to the growing demand, entrepreneurs with a keen eye on making a quick buck soon began selling these kurtas. Jade blue apparently sells upward of 10,000 Modi kurtas every year.
Jitendra said that they had taken ‘permission from Narendrabhai’ for giving the half-sleeved long kurtas the name of Modi kurta. Why has Modi allowed commercial use of his name? Obviously because the kurta no longer remains a merchandise but becomes a symbol of the man. The decision was a clever retake of the famous ad-line of paint maker, Jenson and Nicholson: Whenever you see colour, think of us. In the context of the subject of this book the catch line is simple: see a half-sleeved kurta and Modi comes to your mind.