India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes out of a meeting room to receive his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay before the start of their bilateral meeting in New Delhi May 27, 2014. Image Credit: REUTERS

Birth and family background

Narendra Modi is best known for rising from a humble background to becoming the Prime Minister of India. He is the first Prime Minister of India who was born in ‘Independent India’, that is, post-August 15, 1947.

He is also the first Indian Prime Minister whose mother was alive when he took office. He holds the record for winning a Lok Sabha seat with the highest margin (about 5.70 lakhs; Vadodara).

Born on September 17, 1950 to a family of grocers in Vadnagar, Gujarat, he is the third of six children born to Damodardas Mulchand and Heeraben Modi. His family belonged to the oil presser community namely the ‘Modh-Ghanchi-Teli’.

Modi as a kid

He has four brothers and a sister, all of whom reside in Gujarat. One of his brothers, Somabhai, is a retired health officer who now runs an old age home in the city of Ahmedabad. His brother, Prahlad, has his own fair price shop in Ahmedabad. His third brother, Pankaj, is employed with the Information Department in Gandhinagar. Modi’s sister, Vasantiben, is married to Hasmukbhai Modi and lives in Visnagar, Gujarat. She visits Modi every year on the festival of Raksha Bandhan. Modi’s 92-year-old mother, Heeraben, has spent most of her life in their ancestral house in Vadnagar. Modi visits her often. 

Early childhood

Belonging to the lower caste (oil presser community) in the Hindu sect, Modi and his siblings did not have a fairy tale childhood while growing up. There was nothing remarkable about Modi’s childhood except that he got attracted to Hindu fundamentalist outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which later helped him grow politically.

Modi in his childhood

His family house was poorly lit and had little natural light; the kerosene lamp added to the smoke and grime. What is remarkable about Modi’s success story is that at every difficult juncture in his life, he had the courage and conviction to chart out a positive outcome for himself. He turned every negative into a positive and made sure that all victories counted, big or small.

An early gift for rhetoric in debates was noted by his neighbours and teachers. As a child, Modi preferred playing larger-than-life characters in theatrical productions, which has influenced his political image. In recent interviews, his schoolteachers have recounted that while he was an average student, he was always a great debater who could sway the audiences. 

Teens and schooling

Though not financially strong, Modi’s father, Damodardas, ensured that his children received a good education. Modi completed his studies against all odds. He did his schooling from Vadnagar and obtained a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Gujarat University.

The first glimpse of Modi as a great orator was seen in his schooling years. He completed his higher secondary education in 1967, where a teacher described him as “an average student and a keen debater with an interest in theatre.”

He always had the utmost zeal and enthusiasm to serve and help people in need. As a young boy during the Indo-Pak war in 1965, Modi voluntarily offered his services to the soldiers at the railway stations. He also served people during the 1967 Gujarat floods. 

Late teens

Modi’s humble background as a tea-seller was discussed quite a lot in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections last year. His saga of struggle began when as a teenager, he, along with his brother, used to run a tea stall near a railway station in Ahmedabad.

Modi is blessed by his 90-year-old mother Hirabenat during a visit at her home in Gandhinagar

Even in his school years and immediately thereafter, he made a living selling tea on the Mehsana Railway Station to soldiers during the Indo-Pak war. Separately, he helped his father sell tea at Vadnagar railway station, and later ran a tea stall with his brother near a local bus terminus. However, there is no official record available that shows Modi was a tea seller on railway platforms or trains during his childhood.

Lauding Modi, US Secretary of State John Kerry recently said, “it has been an extraordinary journey of a young man who sold tea by the rail road in Gujarat to the PM’s residence on the Racecourse Road in New Delhi.” He made the remark while talking about changing political and economic situation in India. 

Leaving home

The years from 1967 to 1971 are somewhat mysterious in Modi’s life. He would disappear at times for months at a stretch. Engaged while still a child to a local girl, Jashodaben, Modi rejected the arranged marriage at the same time he graduated from high school. The resulting familial tensions contributed to his decision to leave home in 1967.

Modi in his youthful days

He spent the next 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. He remained only a short time at each, since he lacked the required college education.

Reaching the Belur Math in the early summer of 1968 and being turned away, Modi wandered through Calcutta, West Bengal and Assam, stopping by Siliguri and Guwahati. Sometime in late 1969, Modi returned to Vadnagar for a brief visit before leaving again for Ahmedabad. There he lived with his uncle, working in the latter’s canteen at the Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation. 

RSS initiation

At age eight, Modi discovered the RSS, and began attending its local shakhas (training sessions). There he met Lakshmanrao Inamdar, popularly known as Vakil Saheb, who inducted him as an RSS ‘balswayamsevak’ (junior cadet) 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. In 1971, Modi joined the RSS as a 'pracharak’ (propagandist) while working in the staff canteen at Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation.

His oratorical skills came in handy and it was at this time, that he made a conscious decision to devote himself to politics. His early responsibilities included making tea, breakfast and evening snacks for senior RSS colleagues. Modi proved his mettle while doing risky underground work during the 1975-77 Emergency.

As a ‘pracharak’ in-charge of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of RSS, Modi was forced to go underground and frequently travelled in disguise to avoid arrest. He became involved in printing pamphlets opposing the government, sending them to Delhi, and organising demonstrations. 


His marriage to Jashodaben was forced on Modi by his parents when he was a teenager in keeping with the old orthodox tradition of child marriages. It was never consummated as Modi walked out of the marriage soon after it was solemnised in 1968.

For nearly 40 years, Modi’s estranged wife Jashodaben worked as a teacher in a primary school in Vadgam district’s Rajoshana village. At one time, she used to teach 89 students and the “very noisy” children took a toll on her aural faculties. She retired five years ago.

Jashodaben, ex wife of Narendra Modi

Despite not having been with Modi for 43 years, 64-year-old Jashodaben is sure that Modi still has some feelings for her. She is content to be recognised as the PM’s wife. She fasts four days a week, does not eat rice and reserves all her prayers for Modi. In a recent interview, she said, “Yes, there is always a desire to be together. I will go and do his seva (service), he just has to give me a call. If he comes down to the building where I am right now and tells me that I should go with him, I will immediately join him.” 

Inroads into BJP

Modi was assigned by the RSS to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1985. In 1988, he was elected as the organising secretary of the party’s Gujarat unit, marking his entry into electoral politics. He rose within the party, helping organise LK Advani’s Ayodhya Rath Yatra in 1990 and Murli Manohar Joshi’s 1991—92 Ekta Yatra (Journey for Unity).

Modi learnt the ropes of party politics by attending BJP public meetings — quietly sitting in the background and listening to speeches. His electoral strategy was considered central to the BJP’s victory in the 1995 Gujarat state assembly elections. In November of that year, he was elected as the BJP national secretary and transferred to New Delhi, where he assumed responsibility for party activities in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

Narendra Modi wields the broom during a surprise visit to the Mandir Marg Police Station after launch of 'Swachh Bharat Abhiyan' in New Delhi.

The following year, Modi, on the selection committee for 1998 assembly elections in Gujarat, favoured supporters of Keshubhai Patel over those supporting Shankar Sinh Vaghela to end a factional division within the party. Modi’s strategy was credited as key to the BJP winning an overall majority in the 1998 elections, and he was soon after promoted to BJP general secretary. 

Growing stature in BJP

BJP was looking around to groom the generation next leadership to replace an ageing Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and others in due course. One of the elderly leaders was the then Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel who was not keeping well. The party’s graph was going down under his leadership too.

Modi - with no previous administrative experience - emerged as their first choice in Gujarat. Advani anyway was impressed with Modi’s organisational skills as he had worked behind the scenes in making his controversial Rath Yatra (to demand the construction of a grand Hindu temple in place of the 16th century Babri Masjid in 1990) a success.

Modi’s presence in the BJP central office as one of the national general secretaries came handy when BJP looked around for Keshubhai Patel’s replacement. His brief was simple — win the ensuing 2002 Gujarat assembly elections. Modi did it thrice in row and in the process emerged as the tallest second generation leader of the BJP, forcing the party to acknowledge his popularity and achievements as the Gujarat chief minister. He repaid the favour by winning the 2014 general elections for the party. 

Gujarat CM and Godhra

Unfortunate as it was, the charred train standing on the platform of Godhara railways station provided Modi with the perfect platform to launch himself in Indian politics. Some 60 pilgrims, returning after praying at the makeshift temple that stands in place of the razed Babri Masjid, were killed in the incident.

The train was allegedly set alight by Muslims --- a move which created significant tension ---- while Modi’s decision to move the dead bodies from Godhara to Ahmedabad added fuel to the simmering fire. What followed was a macabre death dance on the streets of Gujarat in which hundreds of Muslims were killed within three days. It helped Modi achieve the short term target given to him by the BJP to ensure the party’s victory in the 2002 assembly polls as well as his long term plan to become a champion of majority Hindus. 

Court indictment and denial of visa

 Modi is set to go down in the history with the taint of the 2002 Gujarat riots despite getting the clean chit from the judiciary in the 2002 massacre in which according to unofficial estimates more than 2,000 were killed.

The Supreme Court appointed SIT (special investigation team) questioned Modi in May 2010 when the apex court asked SIT to reinvestigate the Gulbarg Society massacre following a petition that accused Modi and one of his ministers for being behind the massacre in the Ahmadabad-based housing society. SIT gave Modi the clean chit. However, the court appointed amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran in his report said that Modi could be prosecuted based on available evidence. SIT was asked to examine the Ramachandran report and recommended the closure of the case in March 2012 which was duly accepted by a Gujarat trial court.

What will continue to hurt Modi is the denial of visa by the US in 2005 based on a little-known 1998 US law on religious freedom. Modi was all set to fly to New York to address Indian-Americans at a rally at the Madison Square Garden. He became the first and by far the only foreigner to be denied a visa under this law. It also led to other western countries denying him a visa over the years. 

Growing clout within BJP

Any chief minister who wins three elections for a party on trot becomes a hot property. None had done it before in the BJP ever. Modi was asked to win 2002 Gujarat polls; he won it thrice. Modi did not disappoint BJP and BJP did not disappoint him either when it named him as its prime ministerial candidate for 2014 general elections.

A cleaver politician that Modi is, over the years he had perfected the art of using poll victories to chart his growth. Stalwarts like Advani who never nurtured any constituency depended on Modi to enter the Lok Sabha from Gandhinagar and those who could not enter parliament looked up to Modi to gain entry to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat’s quota.

Modi also used his old connections with the RSS judiciously. While he took on leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and made them irrelevant in Gujarat, he ensured not to ruffle any feathers in the RSS headquarters at Nagpur. It was RSS which decided that Modi it will be as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and RSS decisions are simple diktat for BJP. Those opposed Modi’s elevation now stand isolated including his once mentor Advani himself. 

Political campaign and election

Modi was first named chairman of the BJP campaign committee. He resigned from the post after becoming prime ministerial candidate and the campaign committee got confined to one small room in the BJP central office with no work to do as the entire campaign for 2014 general elections were charted out in details in Gandhinagar.

A master stroke was Modi deciding to contest from Varanasi seat of Uttar Pradesh for greater impact in Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Bihar as also to prove that he was not just a Gujarat leader and was acceptable elsewhere in the country too.

The issues were decided by Modi, who did not engage any speech writer. He identified corruption and family rule as major issues to attack the then ruling Congress party and its top leadership. The nation did not know his background as a tea seller or that he belonged to the other backward classes (OBC). His chai pe charkha (dialogue over tea) became an instant hit.

Modi’s was s a script of a sure shot single hero Bollywood pot boiler. The end result being an unprecedented victory for the BJP and first full majority for any party in three decades. 

How he got the name NaMO

Modi could not have been what he is today but for his vision and foresight. He realised potential IT and social media at a time when others of his ilk like Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar were making mockery of IT. None could then imagine that social media sites could be used for promotion and campaigning. He had his eyes on the growing tribe of internet savvy youth and he was able to penetrate and identify with them.

Even now, Modi loses no time in fishing out his cellular phone from his pocket and clicking series with top global leadership which is again a step to prove to the young voters, who form the majority in the country, that despite being 64, he is one of them.

His colourful designer clothes have always been in the news though Modi recently clarified that he designs his clothes himself though the same cannot be said about his monogrammed suit worth Rs. 1 million that he wore during US President Barack Obama’s New Delhi visit in January this year. It was a gift and was later auctioned for raise funds for his pet Clean Ganga Project. 

His future in the country

If those claiming proximity to Modi are to be believed, the Indian premier is confident that he is here to stay for long. Like in Gujarat, he will make a hat-trick of victories in the general elections as well. If that happens, he will have to quit office midday through his third term as he would have turned 75 in his 13th year in office — the cut off age he fixed to keep seniors like Advani out of his council of ministers.

Modi started preparations for 2019 and 2024 elections soon after becoming the Prime Minister last year as he started a series of studio-to-school live shows aimed at future voters, that is the school going children and followed it up with his monthly radio show ‘man ki beat’. As a radio jockey of the yesteryears, he reads letters of listeners and replies to them. The whole idea is to connect with those who matter the most — the rural voters.

However, the difference between confidence and dream can be Modi’s performance and ability to fulfil his promises made to the voters. He still has four years to show results.