Why Narendra Modi Shared a Complicated Relationship With His Father Damodardas

In 2014, when a book titled Narendra Modi, A Political Biography, written by a British writer Andy Marino was published by HarperCollins Publishers prior to the election that would make Narendra Modi the prime minister of India, it stirred quite a buzz. The reason it garnered such attention was not only because it promised to give a glimpse into the life of Narendra Modi, who was, until then an inaccessible political figure not particularly open to doing many interviews, but also because Marino, who was a relatively unknown Britsih writer, was selected as the biographer of a man who would soon become the most important politicians of the country.

The book chronicles Modi’s early years, his induction into the RSS, his career in Gujarat politics, and his journey towards the prime ministership of India. The writer claims that he had interviewed Modi for several hours while researching and writing this book. While most of the things related to Modi’s political career which is stated in this book is public knowledge now, Marino’s writings also give an insight into the emotional turmoil and the family issues Modi faced in the path of his political journey.

On his 70th birthday, let’s revisit the book that chronicles Modi’s early days of induction into RSS, his desire to join a Sainik school, and how it weighed in on his relationship with his father. In the book, Narendra Modi, A Political Biography, Marino writes, “The attraction to the RSS was, at the age of eight, obviously not political in the sense of hewing to a particular ideological position. Narendra came to the RSS by way of contact, at the age of six, with a Congressman named Rasikbhai Dave, whose office was close to his father’s tea stall at the railway station. It was a time of agitation for a separate Gujarat state, then part of the Bombay State. Gujarat would earn statehood in May 1960, a few months before Narendra’s tenth birthday. He (Narendra) collected pro-Gujarat lapel badges from Dave and then acted as his ‘agent’, distributing them to his school friends.”

The book states:

Politics may look distant and hazy to a six-year-old boy – this was 1956 – but helping to create your own state would be something he could grasp. ‘I got a sense of participation,’ recalls Modi. ‘But there was no deep political understanding.’

It was in the evenings, after he finished helping his father at the tea stall, that Narendra, a couple of years later, began to attend the local youth meetings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. That part of the RSS that caters for an eight-year-old is best described as a sort of Boy Scouts group. Yet it is part of a larger organization that is right-wing, nationalistic and ideological.

The name literally means ‘National Volunteer Organization’. The RSS was banned in 1948 in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by one of its former members, Nathuram Godse, yet it was also commended for averting a coup against Nehru.

Acquitted by the Supreme Court of involvement in Gandhi’s murder, the ban on the RSS was revoked by the government in return for formalizing itself with a constitution. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, then home minister, advised the RSS to stay out of politics and remain a sociocultural organization.

By the time Narendra began to attend its local shakha most evenings, where he would have been one of the youngest participants, the RSS was acquiring quiet respectability as a disciplined force. It was the kind of environment, of ideas and debate at RSS meetings, rather than the rote learning of school, that stimulated him. There he could learn more about worldly matters, and perhaps congregate with the adults who fascinated him.

It was during this phase of his life that he met his guide and mentor in RSS, Laxmanrao Inamdar or ‘Vakil Saheb’ as he was popularly known. Inamdar was instrumental in inducting young Modi as a ‘balswayamsevak’, a junior cadet. In the book, the author writes:

…Aged thirteen, Narendra was about to leave Vadnagar Primary School No. 1 for the local high school, and at such a juncture the idea of applying instead to a junior officers’ academy was not entirely outlandish. It was exactly the sort of idea that would have been inspired in Narendra by attendance at RSS shakha evenings. But his father, Damodardas, forbade the move. The Sainik school was quite a distance away, in the Jamnagar district on the Gulf of Kutch, which meant Narendra moving away to board there. The cost – there was not a spare rupee in the Modi household – or perhaps the awareness of the social divide, also gave Damodardas pause.

Modi’s father’s refusal to send him to Sainik School coincided with the news of Modi’s childhood betrothal with a girl from a nearby village, about which he wasn’t informed beforehand. The book states:

The tradition of childhood betrothal among Gujarati Ghanchis still exists, but in the 1950s and 1960s was more deeply ingrained than today. Narendra at three years of age had been ‘engaged’ by his parents to a girl from a nearby town. He was not made aware of it until many years later. The girl’s name, courtesy a tabloid, was revealed in a 2009 ‘scoop’ to be Jashodaben. There would have been a ritual or symbolic formalization of the agreement between the two families when the children were on the cusp of their teenage years – an engagement, but not the same thing as a wedding between a bride and a groom of legally marriageable age.

This was exactly when Narendra was told the Sainik military school was out of bounds to him. Some years later would come a meeting, with many family members present, during which he could have the opportunity to observe his betrothed but not necessarily speak to her. The final stage, signalled by Jashodaben turning eighteen, would be the commencement of an initial period of cohabitation. Whatever actually happened, the chronology of events suggests that as soon as Narendra fully understood the situation he decided, literally, to make his move.

He abruptly left Vadnagar and his family home when he was seventeen and Jashodaben only fifteen years old. As one observer put it: ‘It was a child marriage, and neither was it consummated nor was there cohabitation. Modi refused and went away as he was never interested in marrying. A case of null and void.’ The tradition of leaving home at an early age to seek spiritual knowledge is part of both Hindu and Buddhist faiths – as the examples of Lord Ram and the Buddha attest.

In the book, the author concludes:

…Chronology is the first element of deduction, and careful consideration suggests the abandoned betrothal, within the tightly knit and traditional Ganchi society in mid-twentieth century Vadnagar, was likely the breaking point. Exactly how healthy relations between father and son were even before that, however, is uncertain. Was there some lingering resentment on Narendra’s part over the decision to deny him entrance to the Sainik school? Did that disappointment compound with the disagreement over Jashodaben? More importantly was Narendra’s increasing focus on the RSS, and his developing friendship with Vakil Saheb, an additional source of friction?

Significantly or even emblematically, Modi still remembers how very disappointed his parents were when he missed Diwali celebrations one year. It was the very day that Vakil Saheb was inducting Narendra into the RSS and repeating the vows with him. Damodardas might have felt his son’s choice only as a small betrayal or disobedience, but as Narendra spent increasing amounts of time at the RSS shakha before he took off on his two-year sojourn, a sense of rejection on his father’s part could have been reinforced to the point where the relationship was severely strained.

Inevitably fathers see their sons growing up and slipping away, escaping their influence, and sometimes a fierce love causes them to resent it. When it also happens that a replacement father figure is involved, especially one so locally glamorous as Vakil Saheb, the hurt can be significant and the paternal feelings of redundancy and emotional loss powerful. Yet the fulfillment of the son’s new direction can often lead to great things. The tragedy, however, lies only in long-term alienation, especially when death intervenes.

The following excerpts have been published with permission from Harpercollins, India.

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