Life is full of surprises, pleasant and unpleasant, but nothing can be more pleasant than to find a friend and colleague you have known, off and on, for several years, suddenly hit the headlines as your next prime minister, no less, in an avalanche of votes that takes your breath away.
I am referring, of course, to Narendra Modi, who has been residing in Delhi's Race Course Road for quite sometime now. Thirty years ago, when we first met in BJP's central office on Ashoka Road in Delhi he was a nervous 'cadet' and I was a member of its national executive and a kind of jack-of-all-trades, but primarily an 'expert' who looked after the party's economic policies.
I don't exactly remember when I first saw Modi, for he was an unusually silent worker. I say unusually because for a budding politician he was so silent that it took me, and most of our other colleagues, six months to make his acquaintance. At one time he was the party's secretary, which is not quite as exalted a position as you may think but which gave him an entry to everything we did or did not do, for he was everywhere and he was nowhere. There were times when he would disappear for weeks, often months, and suddenly make his appearance when you least expected him.
We were a very small party at the time, but growing fast, and, as a party, had a finger in every political pie, from Ayodhya to Swadeshi. Even with very few members in the parliament, we were always dreaming big. The party had collapsed to just two seats in the Lok Sabha when I had joined it. After that, though it had nothing to do with my efforts, by the time Modi appeared on the scene it was going great guns. The BJP Office on 11 Ashoka Road in now a famous landmark in Delhi but it wasn't so when I had joined the party. Even rickshawallas often refused to take us there. It consisted of one big squat building where most of us had an office, and there was a small annexe where Modi and others lived. It also housed a small canteen.
We used to drink lots of tea and coffee-- mostly tea and whenever we had guests or any visitors we would ask Modi to ask the canteen to send us the stuff. Although we drank gallons of tea and coffee every day, I don't recall Modi touching the stuff, for he was a very disciplined young man. He presented himself very well, in well-pressed clothes, (which apparently he washed himself), to a neat haircut, which left me wondering how he managed all that on his small allowance.
During lunch time, we would often go to nearby canteens for snacks-for that was all we could afford-and Modi often accompanied us. He was always tight-lipped about everything, and there was very little we could get out of him, though we knew he had just returned from Gujarat, there were also rumours that he had spent some time in the Himalayas.
After so many years, my memory about these things is slowly fading, but I distinctly remember Modi coming into my room one day and asking me what was the GDP of India. That stumped me, for I had no idea that he was interested in such things. I asked him why he wanted to know. "Just like that," he said shyly, "I am curious."
I explained to him-he was thirty years my junior, more like a son-I taught him how GDP was calculated and what it meant. Then I shared with him the figure, and also the GDP of US for comparison. I told him that if we divided the figure by our population, it would tell us how poor we were as a country. I was sitting in my chair, and Modi was standing before me, with a piece of paper in his hand. He smiled, got up and walked away, as if stunned by what I had told him.
In the afternoon, some of us addressed the daily press conference, always a noisy and heated affair, for questions ranging from Ayodhya to inflation and from Pakistan to terrorism. I could see Modi in the last row, listening attentively and taking notes. After the conference was over, he would come to my table on the dais and ask more questions, even though as party secretary he had most of the answers. And then we both would join the reporters for tea and biscuits. This was a regular ritual for us.
Years later, both of us had moved out of Delhi--he to Gujarat, where he had become the Chief Minister, and I to Pune to spend my retired life. Early in the morning one day, out of the blue, I received a phone call and the voice on the other end announced, as they do on BBC that the CM would like to speak to me. I had no idea what CM meant, for in the past I had dealt only with PMs and not CMs. So, I asked him where he was speaking from.
A gruff voice came on the line and identified himself as Modi. After asking me how I was, he told me he had my article open in front of him. I had written this piece that was published in the London-based Economist where I had highlighted the developments in the state. In the article I had praised Modi lauding the work he has done in Gujrat.
Modi's call was a pleasant surprise, and I told him that if rumour about his trying to be the next Prime Minister was correct, he could count on my support. Go ahead, I said, and next time phone me from the PM's office in New Delhi. I also gave him my usual pep-talk as I used to do when we worked together in New Delhi, and bade him good-bye. Now the young man who always asked questions is getting ready to answer them and I am waiting for his next call!The writer is a well-known columnist & economist.
The column was written sometime ago