Cobbled narrow lanes. Old two-storey homes. An ancient temple. A lake in the heart of the town. The first impressions of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s home town – the dusty, sleepy temple town of Vadnagar in Mehsana district in north Gujarat.
Born on September 17, 1950 here in Vadnagar to Damodardas and Heeraben, Narendra Modi was the third of six children. He belongs to the Ganchi community, listed among Other Backward Classes or OBC.
Mr Modi was raised in a lower middle class home in humble surroundings. He and his brother sold tea along with their father in a bustling corner of the town near the railway station.
He was an average student, his classmate and namesake Narendra Shastri told me during the 2007 Gujarat elections. He said Narendra Modi was popular among his friends and even as a child, his now well-known oratory skills were exceptional, as was his power to persuade people.
“Even as a child, he was aloof. He talked only when required. When his father died, he only came to the cremation ground and returned from there. When his younger brother’s daughter got married, he blessed them, but did not turn up at the wedding,” says Mr Shastri, who had by 2007 become the principal of BN School, where he and Mr Modi had been classmates.
Legend has it that as a 12-year-old, young Narendra Modi, along with two other friends, swam across the Sharmishtha Lake one monsoon day to change the saffron flag atop a temple in the middle of the lake. His daring act, villagers still recall, turned him into a hero overnight.
At 17, Narendra Modi left Vadnagar to join the RSS, rarely ever returning home. Much later he joined the BJP and the rest is history. “The life he joined didn’t permit him to spend time with his family. It was then customary to focus only on the social work of the RSS. The rest was not important,” Mr Shastri said.
The relatives of netas are often seen to get wealthier as the politicians rise in stature. But even after he has won three consecutive Assembly elections and been Gujarat Chief Minister for 12 years now, the financial condition of Mr Modi’s kin in Vadnagar seems to have remained, much the same.
Arvind Modi, his first cousin still lives in a small house in a narrow bylane of the town. In two visits to Vadnagar – in 2007 and 2012 – there was no difference. Clothes hung on a line that swung across the main room of the house. Two wooden khatiyaas (cots) occupied most of the room. No TV, no telephone. Not even a cycle.
“I have a small shop where I sell gunny bags. That’s all I have,” Said Arvind Modi as his wife stood on the porch, leaning against the door. Did he never seek any help from his cousin – after all he is the Chief Minister?
“No. Why should I?” asked this Mr Modi. “We don’t need his help. I am happy this way.”
In Vadnagar, it is also common knowledge that Mr Modi did get married, though he never speaks about it. “Yes he did. But when he joined the RSS, he opted out. She’s a teacher in Sabarkantha district now. As far as I know, they did not file for a divorce,” Arvind Modi said, adding that the couple never met again.
Surprisingly, the Modi cult here isn’t as pronounced as in other parts of Gujarat. But when it came to defending him on the question of the communal riots of 2002, the village spoke in one voice. “Hindus and Muslims live together here. Nobody from either community is capable of stoking riots. This is not the upbringing of those in Vadnagar, that has never seen a riot,” Mr Modi’s school teacher Hiraben, now 80, explained sitting on the porch outside her house. “These are allegations made by the Congress. Nothing more, nothing less.”
One of Mr Modi’s closest friends as a child was a Muslim, Jasud Pathan. Decades later, he insisted that Mr Modi was neither arrogant nor communal as alleged. “I have only one request for Narendra Modi: bring Muslims forward. He must concentrate on their education and give them employment,” Mr Pathan said.
Another friend, Dr Sushil Joshi said, “He may appear stone-hearted, but in reality he is not. Even now when we meet up, he is affectionate. Even if he is passing by in a car, he always waves out.”
Mr Modi has rarely returned to Vadnagar. His family members say that he is no longer in touch with them. He meets his mother, who lives in Ahmedabad, only once a year on his birthday.
But Vadnagar is grateful to its son. When I returned to the town in 2012 to cover another assembly election in the state, its transformation was hard to believe. A ring road that connected the entire town of 30,000 residents, brand new street lights, a government polytechnic institute, gardens, water tanks, an industrial training centre to produce a skilled workforce, and an open air theatre on the banks of the Sharmistha Lake in which Mr Modi used to swim every morning as a young boy before cycling to school.
“Had it not been for Modi, who would have brought a place like Vadnagar this far?” a local businessman asked sitting on his scooter.
Locals said Mr Modi’s stellar political rise was predicted. Years ago, they claimed, his horoscope was shown to an astrologer who said that Narendra Modi would either turn into an ascetic or he would go on to become an “emperor”.
Now, Vadnagar is waiting for the prophecy to come true. In one voice it says: CM to PM, Narendrabhai we are waiting for 2014.