Meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extended family that lives in quiet obscurity, far removed from the circles of power and influence.
Sombhai Modi, 75, was on the dais at a function organised by an NGO in Pune in 2015 when the compere let slip that he was Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s eldest brother. There was some excitement in the audience until Sombhai, who runs an eldercare facility in Modi’s ancestral town Vadnagar, stepped up to clarify. “There is a screen between me and Prime Minister Modi,” he said. “I can see that screen, but to you it is invisible. I am the brother of Narendra Modi, and not the prime minister. For Prime Minister Modi, I am only one of the 125 crore people of India who are his brothers and sisters.”
This wasn’t mere hyperbole. Sombhai hasn’t met his younger brother in the past two-and-a-half years. The brothers have only spoken on the phone. His younger sibling, Pankaj, an officer in the Gujarat information department, has been luckier. He got to meet his famous brother because their mother, Heeraben, stays with him at his modest three-room house in Gandhinagar. (The prime minister met his mother Heeraben twice in the state capital in the past six months and hosted her at his Delhi residence for a week this May.)
India’s prime ministers have traditionally been family men. Nehru lived with Indira, his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri moved into 1 Motilal Nehru Place with the extended Shastri clan, including children and grandchildren. Indira Gandhi’s children Sanjay and Rajiv and their families stayed with her. Even bachelor prime minister A.B. Vajpayee had company. When he moved into 7 Race Course Road in 1998, his adopted foster family, Namita Bhattacharya and her husband Ranjan, moved in with him.
Prime Minister Modi, the third of six children, born to a tea stall owner, Damodardas Mulchand Modi, and his homemaker wife Heeraben, wears his familial detachment on his sleeve. It’s a useful foil to remind people of his ‘selfless’ image. As recently as November 14, barely a week after announcing the demonestisation move, Modi hit an emotional note at a public function in Goa. “I was not born to assume a chair of high office. Whatever I had, my family, my home…I left it for the nation…” he said, holding back tears. Arguably, Modi’s detachment has helped to blunt any personal allegations against him in the debate on demonetisation.
Just how far behind he has left his family is evident from a visit to Gujarat. The Modi clan continues to live the life of middle-class obscurity they did when their famous family member first became chief minister in 2001. Another of the PM’s elder brothers, Amrutbhai, 72, retired as fitter for a private company, drawing a salary of less than Rs 10,000 a month in 2005. He leads a quiet, retired life in his four-room middle class dwelling in Ahmedabad’s Ghatlodia locality with son, Sanjay, 47, a small entrepreneur, and his wife and two children. Sanjay’s son Nirav and daughter Nirali are both engineering students. An ITI certificate holder, Sanjay fashions small engineering spare parts at his lathe machine shop and makes a modest living. The family car, bought in 2009, is parked outside the house, covered. It is sparingly used as the family mostly travels by two-wheeler.
Sanjay’s family, who confess they are yet to see the inside of a passenger plane, have met Modi only twice-once in 2003 when, as CM, he hosted a family gathering at his Gandhinagar home, and then on May 16, 2014, the day the BJP fashioned that historic Lok Sabha victory (again at his Gandhinagar residence ). Everyone in the Sattadhar tenement society where they stay knows Amrutbhai is the prime minister’s brother. But as a local anecdote goes, officials at the bank where Sanjay has an account, don’t know this. His son Priyank was recently spotted in a long queue to withdraw money.
Sanjay’s most cherished possession is a memento that recalls his uncle’s early obsession with wearing well-ironed clothes. Modi apparently used the iron while he lived with Amrutbhai in Ahmedabad between 1969 and 1971. Sanjay says he stopped his parents from selling it for scrap in 1984 (indeed, he seems to be one of the earliest believers in his uncle’s greatness). “If Kaka ( Modi ) sees this iron today, he might feel the same way a Titanic survivor would…after seeing the personal effects retrieved from the sunken vessel.” The house also has another exhibit which might serve well for a future museum for their famous uncle: a Cinni brand table fan that Modi used to beat Ahmedabad’s summers.
In keeping with the RSS ideal, which requires a pracharak to maintain a distance from family members, Narendra Modi started cutting himself off in 1971, focussing more on his work with the Sangh and leading a celibate life. And over the years, this is how things remained as he began his ascent up the political ladder. His relatives, nevertheless, regard him with some pride. The sentiment is reciprocated by the prime minister, evidently relieved as he is at not being besieged by relatives seeking favours. “It is indeed to the credit of my brothers and cousins that they have continued to live a simple life and never pestered me for anything. In today’s world, it is an extremely difficult thing,” Prime Minister Modi says.
Some of the family members, though, maintain a distance from Modi’s youngest brother, Prahlad Modi, a fair price shop owner and president of the Gujarat State Fair Price Owner’s Association. Prahlad was a vocal critic of his elder brother’s drive for transparency in the PDS system when he was CM, holding public demonstrations against the ‘raid raj’ on shop owners.
Stories of the rest of the Modi clan-the PM’s brothers, nephews and nieces or his first cousins-are of simplicity and struggle. In fact, some of them struggle to make ends meet. Modi’s first cousin Ashokbhai (son of Modi’s late uncle Narsinhdas) used to sell kites, crackers and snacks on a four-wheeled push cart in Vadnagar’s Gheekanta bazaar. He now rents out a tiny 8×4 ft shop for Rs 1,500 a month to sell the same articles. The shop earns him about Rs 4,000. With wife Veena, he earns another Rs 3,000 working at a weekly free food outlet for the poor run by local Jain businessmen. Ashokbhai cooks khichdi and kadhi and his wife washes the utensils at the outlet. They live in a ramshackle three-room house in town.
His elder brother, Bharatbhai, 55, leads an equally tough existence. He works as a petrol pump attendant, earning Rs 6,000 a month, at Lalawada village near Palanpur, over 60 kms from Vadnagar. He comes home every 10 days or so. In Vadnagar, his wife Ramilaben sells eatables, grocery and miscellaneous items from their small home in old Bhojak sheri, earning some Rs 3,000 a month. A third brother, Chandrakantbhai, 48, works as a helper at a charitable gaushala in Ahmedabad.
Arvindbhai, 61, the fourth brother of Ashokbhai and Bharatbhai, is a scrap dealer who collects old oil tins, corrugated boxes and other waste items, going house-to-house in Vadnagar and nearby villages and transporting them by auto-rickshaw or state transport bus. He makes Rs 6,000-7,000 a month, which he says is enough to sustain him and wife Ranjanben (the couple do not have children. Bharatbhai is the highest earner amongst the offspring of Narsinhdas. He and Ramilaben sometimes manage to earn as much as Rs 10,000 a month.
The eldest son of Narsinhdas, Bhogibhai, 67, also has a grocery shop in Vadnagar. Incidently, none of Narsinhdas’ five sons studied beyond matriculation. Like his brother Damodardas, Narsinhdas too ran a tea stall near Vadnagar railway station. Damodardas had four brothers apart from Narsinhdas-Narottamdas and Jagjivandas, both of whom have passed away, and Kantilal and Jayantilal, both retired teachers. Jayantilal is now retired and settled in Gandhinagar, while his daughter Leena is married to a bus conductor in Visnagar town near Vadnagar. Says Bharatbhai Modi, an RSS worker in Vadnagar who belongs to the PM’s caste, “No one in Vadnagar or Ahmedabad has ever seen any of Narendrabhai’s relatives throwing their weight around ever. This is a unique thing in today’s world.”
Amrutbhai has very fond memories of Narendra Modi’s “evolution”. In 1969, he used to run a canteen at the Gujarat State Road Transport headquarters near Geeta Mandir in Ahmedabad when Modi started working alongside him. The canteen contract actually belonged to their mother’s brother Babubhai Modi. As Amrutbhai remembers, “Since my one-room house near the canteen was very small, Narendrabhai used to sleep in the canteen. He would finish the day’s work and in the evening go to the state RSS headquarters to serve the elder pracharaks in any way he could. He would come back very late to the canteen, eat the dinner sent from our home in a tiffin before making his bed on a canteen table.”
Amrutbhai gets nostalgic while recalling how Narendrabhai met him for the last time in February, 1971, before leaving for the mountains on a spiritual quest. “When he told me he was now leaving family life forever, I was moved to tears by the prospect of losing him. But he himself was calm and stoic.”
There are people who believe the prime minister is too harsh on his relatives. “Narendrabhai should have had a family gathering after becoming PM like he did when he was CM in 2003,” says a political analyst who has known him for many years. But the PM clearly believes that any truck with power would only corrupt their innocence. There’s also the matter of his own projection as an incorruptible, nepotism-free leader. Perhaps another reason he believes the family must be kept at a distance.