Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Atal Tunnel, Rohtang on October 3, 2020. It is the longest highway tunnel in the world built at an altitude of 3000 meters. The 9.02 Km long tunnel connects Manali to Lahaul-Spiti valley. Image Credit: ANI

On 3rd October 2020, one day after Mahatma Gandhi’s 151st birth anniversary, Narendra Modi, sometimes known as India’s infrastructure man, inaugurated the Atal Tunnel in the high and hilly northern state of Himachal Pradesh. Right under the Rohtang Pass in the eastern Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas, the tunnel is over 9 km long and 10,000 feet high.

Built in the freezing mountainous fastness at the cost of $400 million, the all-weather tunnel will cut travelling time in the region by four hours, connecting the isolated and inaccessible region to the rest of the country. Named after the first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, this engineering feat, in many respects, symbolises Modi’s achievements. In fact, Atal, which means firm, unshakable, undaunted, characterises Modi much more than Vajpayee, who was seen as a conciliatory and flexible coalition leader. Sixteen days earlier, Modi turned seventy on 17th September. On 7th October, he crossed another milestone by entering his twentieth year of continuous leadership at the state and central levels. First sworn in on 7th October 2001, he became the longest-serving, three-term Chief Minister of Gujarat. Now, having completed six years and five months as India’s Prime Minister, he is also the longest-serving non-Congress Indian Prime Minister.

His steady rise to his present position as India’s undisputed leader is the stuff legends are made of. Born in a rural family of less than modest means, he apprenticed in his father’s railway platform tea stall. Later, he himself ran a tea stall near the bus station. Instead of trying to hide his non-elite birth and upbringing, Modi has made the most of it. Turning the tables against his Congress critics, with their in poor taste ‘chaiwalla’ (tea seller) jibes, he inaugurated the ‘Chai pe Charcha’ (chat over tea) drive in 2014. Visiting different tea stalls across the country, he conversed with common people about his ideas. The programme was relayed nation-wide via direct-to-home (DTH) TV. Spread across 1000 tea stalls in 300 cities, the campaign helped propel him to power in 2014, underscoring how a tea vendor’s son could become the Prime Minister of India.

‘Chai pe Charcha’ was typical of Modi. An out-of-the box initiative, it showed his uncanny connect with the masses, in addition to political astuteness and steely determination. Modi’s strategy is to wait till the Opposition exhausts its ammunition. Then he hits back hard, often turning all that has been thrown at him to his own advantage. Whatever is said against him boomerangs on his detractors. When still in school, he began to attend the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha (branch). Soon he was discovered by Lakshmanrao Inamdar, RSS praant pracharak (head of province), popularly known as ‘Vakilsaheb.’ Mentored by Inamdar, Modi rose rapidly. Way back in 1965, when he was just fifteen, he became the ward secretary of Kankaria, in Ahmedabad. The BJP did not exist then. Modi worked for the Jana Sangh, its predecessor. In 1972, he flung himself into the Navnirman Andolan, an anti-corruption movement led by students, which drove the Congress-led Chimanbhai Patel government in Gujarat out of power.

As the general secretary of Gujarat Lok Sangharsh Samiti, he also spearheaded the fight against the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Over the next ten years, Modi continued to work for the RSS, wandering all over India in a journey of self-discovery and self-education. In 1985, he was seconded to the BJP as general secretary for Gujarat where he proved his mettle. Six years later, he was sworn in as Chief Minister. He has not looked back since. In last year’s general elections, he improved his party’s standing in the Lok Sabha from 282 to 303 seats, once again being sworn in as Prime Minister. Naturally, members of his Cabinet, in addition to party leaders, marked the occasion with glowing tributes. Party president J.P. Nadda proudly described him as never having lost an election. Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister for Law and Justice, compared him to other long-serving leaders of the democratic world, including Franklin Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Angela Merkel. Speaking on Doordarshan, the state-owned national TV network, Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given hope to the people of India.”

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But it was Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, who summed up the prevailing sentiment: “PM Shri Narendra Modi Ji has been working tirelessly for the cause of India. … His family of 130 crore Indians trusts him and his resolve is as strong as ever.” Posterity can be a harsh judge. But today there is little doubt that despite being dogged by detractors and disputes, no Indian since Mahatma Gandhi has moved, inspired, and transformed the nation as much as Narendra Modi.