In this excerpt from their book about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, authors Rahul Agarwal and Bharathi S. Pradhan look at the formative role the PM’s mother, Heeraben, played in his life.
First universal axiom: All world leaders act on incidents and influences that impacted them in their early days. Modi did too. Second home truth: The first woman who makes the deepest impression on almost every man is his mother. It was true of Modi too.
It was the second that shaped Modi’s views on women, mental notes that when translated into action, showed a sensitivity that had to be born out of the first universal truth. Modi acknowledged Heeraben’s contribution to his social vision when he took questions from school students across the country one year on Teachers’ Day. When a schoolgirl asked him who were the people who’d had the most influence on him, the Prime Minister replied, “If our mind is receptive, we tend to absorb various things. I liked all my teachers and my mother had a great influence on me.”
There was a recorded story of how a vigorously active RSS pracharak who became the most skilled organiser and backroom boy of the Bharatiya Janata Party was one day, out of the blue, picked by the Prime Minister of the country and asked to go take over as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Although he had personally steered the electoral campaign of many a leader and had witnessed their rise and fall, the “backroom boy” had never officially been inside the State Assembly; he had never asked for votes for himself nor served a term as an MLA. When Modi got the call from Atal Bihari Vajpayee pole-vaulting him over others and anointing him Chief Minister of Gujarat, the first person he went and met as the new CM was Heeraben. Famously, his mother said in her blessing, “Never take a bribe.” Modi who had thus far stayed away from home, hearth and family advice, decided to pay heed to Heeraben this time. Years later, he articulated it in his thunderous warning as Prime Minister of the country, “Na khaoonga, na khaane doonga.” Most underprivileged children in India had grown up haunted by the vision of a mother slaving and sweating over unhealthy fumes from stubborn firewood or cow-dung cakes, as she whipped up meal after meal for her large family. Sensitive children did something about it at an opportune time.
When Modi was in a position to replace that enduring visual with a neater medium of cooking, he was fortunate: it was not Heeraben but the millions of women she symbolised for him who got a reprieve from kitchen smoke, as lakhs of households across the country got a coveted LPG connection, a gas cylinder in the kitchen that had so far been a boon only for the better placed. Using his forever-thinking brain, he came up with a simple way of doing it as a collective good. He exhorted the more privileged to give up their gas subsidies voluntarily, so that those could be diverted into the homes of the poor.
In the four-year period between 2014 and 2018, 10 crore LPG connections including 4 crore free to the poor, were facilitated. To understand its importance, compare it to 13 crore connections that were made possible in the six decades since Independence and the picture becomes clear. Speaking to the beneficiaries of his Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, he talked of how watching his mother in his childhood had guided his mission. But his larger aim was to provide clean fuel to every household in the country and shield all women and children from kitchen smoke.
A child who watched, who had a hunger for learning from every experience and who had a mind that constantly looked for a way out of a difficult situation, Modi would keep urging his mother to do things differently.
He told his biographer Andy Marino, “Sometimes when my mother was doing her work, I would say, ‘Why, Ma, are you doing it like that? Can you not do it like this?’ And I wanted to help her. I wanted to do it differently. Even how to wash clothes—I was always using new techniques. People used to watch me. In my childhood, I used to wash my clothes and my family members’ clothes in the public lake. They used to come to see how I was doing this.”
While Heeraben admired her son for his inventiveness and his “intellectual hunger”, and noted with happiness his compassion, her motherly instinct also told her that this child was too different to remain in the family fold for long. She was right but she impacted him forever.
For a man who did not lay store by family ties and bonds, his mother always touched an emotional chord in him. Long after he left home, rose in status, became CM and PM, “Ma” was a word that made him tear up even in public. In May 2014, during his acceptance speech in the Central Hall of Parliament as the BJP-chosen Prime Minister, he was overcome with emotion when he referred to L.K. Advani’s statement that Narendra Modi had done the party a favour by taking up the responsibility of leading the country. Modi choked and had to ask for water when he likened his party to his mother. “Can serving the mother be a favour?” asked he in his speech. “A son is only dedicated to serve the mother. The favour has been done by the party…” said he.
It was a more direct reference to his mother that brought a lump to his throat and forced him to halt for a while when he spoke at Facebook headquarters in 2015. “When we were small, to sustain us she cleaned dishes, fetched water and laboured at neighbours’ houses. You can imagine a mother, in order to raise her kids, underwent so much hardship,” said he, pausing to hold back his tears. “It’s not just the case with Narendra Modi, many mothers in India sacrifice their entire lives for their children,” added he.
Although Modi was never known to visit family and siblings, it was younger brother Pankaj who got to see him occasionally because Heeraben stayed with him on the outskirts of Gandhinagar. On his birthday, 17 September, he may not have cut a cake and blown candles but meeting Heeraben for her blessings was always on the card.