life and education
Narendra Modi was born on 17 September 1950 to a family of grocers in Vadnagar, Mehsana district, Bombay State (present-day Gujarat). He was the third of six children born to Damodardas Mulchand Modi (c. 1915–1989) and Hiraben Modi (born c. 1920). Modi’s family belonged to the Modh-Ghanchi-Teli (oil-presser) community, which is categorised as an Other Backward Class by the Indian government.
As a child, Modi helped his father sell tea at the Vadnagar railway station, and said that he later ran a tea stall with his brother near a bus terminus. Modi completed his higher secondary education in Vadnagar in 1967, where a teacher described him as an average student and a keen debater, with interest in theatre. Modi had an early gift for rhetoric in debates, and his teachers and students noted this. Modi preferred playing larger-than-life characters in theatrical productions, which has influenced his political image.
When eight years old, Modi discovered the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and began attending its local shakhas (training sessions). There, Modi met Lakshmanrao Inamdar, popularly known as Vakil Saheb, who inducted him as a balswayamsevak (junior cadet) in the RSS and became his political mentor. While Modi was training with the RSS, he also met Vasant Gajendragadkar and Nathalal Jaghda, Bharatiya Jana Sangh leaders who were founding members of the BJP’s Gujarat unit in 1980.
Also in Narendra Modi’s childhood, in a custom traditional to his caste, his family arranged a betrothal to a girl, Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi, leading to their marriage when they were teenagers. Sometime thereafter, he abandoned the further marital obligations implicit in the custom, and left home, the couple going on to lead separate lives, neither marrying again, and the marriage itself remaining unmentioned in Modi’s public pronouncements for many decades. In April 2014, shortly before the national elections that swept him to power, Modi publicly affirmed that he was married and his spouse was Jashodaben, the couple has remained married, but estranged.
Modi spent the ensuing two years travelling across Northern and North-eastern India, though few details of where he went have emerged. In interviews, Modi has described visiting Hindu ashrams founded by Swami Vivekananda: the Belur Math near Kolkata, followed by the Advaita Ashrama in Almora and the Ramakrishna Mission in Rajkot. Modi remained only a short time at each, since he lacked the required college education. Vivekananda has been described as a large influence in Modi’s life.
In the early summer of 1968, Modi reached the Belur Math but was turned away, after which Modi wandered through Calcutta, West Bengal and Assam, stopping in Siliguri and Guwahati. Modi then went to the Ramakrishna Ashram in Almora, where he was again rejected, before travelling back to Gujarat via Delhi and Rajasthan in 1968–69. Sometime in late 1969 or early 1970, Modi returned to Vadnagar for a brief visit before leaving again for Ahmedabad. There, Modi lived with his uncle, working in the latter’s canteen at the Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation.
In Ahmedabad, Modi renewed his acquaintance with Inamdar, who was based at the Hedgewar Bhavan (RSS headquarters) in the city. After the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, he stopped working for his uncle and became a full-time pracharak (campaigner) for the RSS, working under Inamdar. Shortly before the war, Modi took part in a non-violent protest against the Indian government in New Delhi, for which he was arrested; this has been cited as a reason for Inamdar electing to mentor him. Many years later Modi would co-author a biography of Inamdar, published in 2001.
In 1978 Modi received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from School of Open Learning at University of Delhi, graduating with a third class. Five years later, in 1983, he received a Master of Arts degree in political science from Gujarat University, graduating with a first class as an external distance learning student.
In June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India which lasted until 1977. During this period, known as “The Emergency”, many of her political opponents were jailed and opposition groups were banned. Modi was appointed general secretary of the “Gujarat Lok Sangharsh Samiti”, an RSS committee co-ordinating opposition to the Emergency in Gujarat. Shortly afterwards, the RSS was banned. Modi was forced to go underground in Gujarat and frequently travelled in disguise to avoid arrest. He became involved in printing pamphlets opposing the government, sending them to Delhi and organising demonstrations. Modi was also involved with creating a network of safe houses for individuals wanted by the government, and in raising funds for political refugees and activists. During this period, Modi wrote a book in Gujarati, Sangharsh Ma Gujarat (In The Struggles of Gujarat), describing events during the Emergency. Among the people he met in this role was trade unionist and socialist activist George Fernandes, as well as several other national political figures. In his travels during the Emergency, Modi was often forced to move in disguise, once dressing as a monk, and once as a Sikh.
Modi became an RSS sambhag pracharak (regional organiser) in 1978, overseeing RSS activities in the areas of Surat and Vadodara, and in 1979 he went to work for the RSS in Delhi, where he was put to work researching and writing the RSS’s version of the history of the Emergency. He returned to Gujarat a short while later, and was assigned by the RSS to the BJP in 1985. In 1987 Modi helped organise the BJP’s campaign in the Ahmedabad municipal election, which the BJP won comfortably; Modi’s planning has been described as the reason for that result by biographers. After L. K. Advani became president of the BJP in 1986, the RSS decided to place its members in important positions within the BJP; Modi’s work during the Ahmedabad election led to his selection for this role, and Modi was elected organising secretary of the BJP’s Gujarat unit later in 1987.
Modi rose within the party and was named a member of the BJP’s National Election Committee in 1990, helping organise L. K. Advani’s 1990 Ram Rath Yatra in 1990 and Murli Manohar Joshi’s 1991–92 Ekta Yatra (Journey for Unity). However, he took a brief break from politics in 1992, instead establishing a school in Ahmedabad; friction with Shankersingh Vaghela, a BJP MP from Gujarat at the time, also played a part in this decision. Modi returned to electoral politics in 1994, partly at the insistence of Advani, and as party secretary, Modi’s electoral strategy was considered central to the BJP victory in the 1995 state assembly elections. In November of that year Modi was elected BJP national secretary and transferred to New Delhi, where he assumed responsibility for party activities in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The following year, Shankersinh Vaghela, a prominent BJP leader from Gujarat, defected to the Indian National Congress (Congress, INC) after losing his parliamentary seat in the Lok Sabha elections. Modi, on the selection committee for the 1998 Assembly elections in Gujarat, favoured supporters of BJP leader Keshubhai Patel over those supporting Vaghela to end factional division in the party. His strategy was credited as key to the BJP winning an overall majority in the 1998 elections, and Modi was promoted to BJP general secretary (organisation) in May of that year.