If You Too Could Be Narendra Modi, Wouldn't You Be?

Rishi Majumder
Grist Media


There's never a dull moment at the BJP headquarters. As I watch, a man has been flung out onto the footpath outside 11 Ashoka Road, Delhi. He's frothing at the mouth and trying desperately to communicate with Hindi news channel reporters in Kannada. When that doesn't work, he tries English.

"Ticket," he says. "You not get ticket?" asks a reporter. "So poison?" When enough news cameras gather around he springs to his feet and bursts into Kannada again. Everyone is nonplussed till a Delhi Police Gypsy arrives and takes him away.

Somewhere else, on national television, a different kind of drama is playing out. Jaswant Singh, veteran BJP leader, has broken down on camera, in Jodhpur. He has been denied a ticket from his home constituency of Barmer. "The party worker has to differentiate between the asli (real) and the nakli (fake) BJP," he says. His colleague Sushma Swaraj, another senior BJP leader, has said, "This is a ticket that was not discussed in the CEC (Central Election Committee). I am personally saddened by the decision." Singh's supporters have put up posters in favor of Singh, against the nakli BJP, all over western Rajasthan.

Inside the headquarters, the din revolves around the polarizing figure of the decade. He has a white beard and rimless spectacles. He wears a white khadi kurta and pajamas, a red waistcoat and brown leather sandals. On his head is a crimson and cream turban with an ornate gold border. He is a spitting image of the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

"Wherever I go, people are rooting for Narendra Modi," says Abhinandan Pathak to a TV crew. "They are praying for him to be PM." Some cameras follow him out of the gates of the compound. Some, belonging to news crews waiting outside, train their lens on him as he approaches. A few cars screech to a halt and heads pop out to get a better look.

As Pathak gets into the car with me, he turns to glance at the gigantic BJP hoarding at the gate, with the faces of four of the party's leaders - Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Rajnath Singh and Narendra Modi - painted on it like Mount Rushmore. "It's a carbon copy," he says, staring at the face of Modi, his face radiant with joy. As if Modi were the lookalike. As if Pathak was what was stalling traffic on this day on Ashoka Road.

Pathak, 47, realized some two and a half years ago - rather dramatically - that he looked like the controversial Gujarat chief minister. He had immersed himself in the Ganga at one of the ghats of Haridwar. When he surfaced, he saw a few pandas (junior priests) rushing towards him. "Are you from Gujarat?" he remembers them asking him. "You look just like Narendra Modi."

But it was only after Modi was declared the party's prime ministerial candidate on September 13 last year, and the media and publicity blitz around him became a cyclone, that people really began taking notice. "Modiji how are you?" people would ask him in Saharanpur, UP, where he's from. He would sit down to a family dinner and when they put on the TV his daughters would say, "Papa, you're giving a speech."

So Pathak read up on Modi, found out more about him, and, on January 27, he decided to ally with his lookalike by setting off on a cycle to Meerut to whip up support for Modi's rally in the city. He wore, on this journey, a shocking pink turban with "Narendra Modi Zindabad (Long Live Narendra Modi)" written on either side, and a cardboard placard hung from his neck, beseeching people to attend the rally. He has since been to Khatauli, Allahabad, Bhadohi, Lucknow and Varanasi in UP, and Gopalganj in Bihar, to spread the word.

This is what we know so far: at a time when the campaign for Modi as Prime Minister is spawning spin-offs by the day, some intentional, others accidental, Pathak is a particularly peculiar spin-off. What, really, differentiates Pathak from so much 'NaMo merchandise'? From t-shirts, caps, masks, Modi-jackets, Modi-kurtas, stationery and coffee mugs that read "India needs modi-fications"? What sets him apart from a film titled NaMo, to be made by Rupesh Paul, maker of Kamasutra 3D and Saint Dracula, that is to be "India's first 4D film", on the PM candidate's life? Indeed, how is he different from Paresh Rawal, self-professed Modi bhakt and the BJP's surprise candidate for Ahmedabad East, who Paul is reportedly trying to rope in to play Modi in his film? How is he different from Moditva: The Idea Behind The Man - a banal attempt by the Citizens for Accountable Governance, a think tank of young minds from some of the world's best institutions, who have distilled their learning to create a work that will make your 6th Standard Civics textbook read like it was written by Plato? How is he different from a Rs 200 crore - or so Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi alleged - 'Chai Pe Charcha' (discussion over tea) created by the same group? How, truly, is Abhinandan Pathak any more than a Bal Narendra comic book, which has a souped-up young superhero version of the prime ministerial candidate - a superhero who played with crocodiles in his childhood?

The answer lies in Pathak himself.

We have driven to BJP President Rajnath Singh's bungalow, and Pathak is waiting outside, impatiently, with a bunch of roses in his hand. Atul Dubey, an aide from the party who has been appointed to escort Pathak, writes a note for Singh on Pathak's behalf.

"Respected Sir, please give 4 minutes of your valuable time as Modiji's replica has come from Varanasi, after Holi celebrations, to meet you."

Singh declines.

When the message arrives, Pathak hands over the roses to a man at the gate.

"I'll tell him Abhinandan Pathak… "

"No," Pathak interjects. "Junior Modi. Just tell him Junior Modi left these," he says to the attendant, a short man in a faded shirt and trousers, who looks very perplexed by now. "He'll understand."

Comic books do not behave in such a manner.

Next stop. India Gate. We find a quiet spot at one of the lawns flanking the monument. Pathak borrows some chewing tobacco from a bunch of casual laborers who happen to be around, and who are amused by the Modi lookalike hitting them up for a free chew. He begins his story.

Born in Saharanpur to a man who worked in the cotton trade and a primary school teacher, Pathak, the eldest son, had to give up school when he was 14 to be able to earn for the family. He resumed studies however, when his wife teased him about being less educated than her. This was when he was 18, just married. So he continued, alongside work, and finally got an MA in Hindi Literature when he was 30. The odd jobs he pursued meanwhile include selling cut cucumbers and boiled chickpeas to passengers on trains, cutting grass and taking an orchard on lease to grow and sell mangoes. He also volunteered as a home guard and wrote articles on social issues for a Saharanpur weekly called Desh Dulaara, but these activities didn't earn him anything. He is now a Physical Education instructor at a Saharanpur school. His wife runs a primary school from their home.

But Pathak has two lesser known, long abiding passions that seem to have come together for his latest act: drama and politics.

Drama first. Pathak was besotted with the Ramlila from the age of 12. His first role in the play was that of Hanuman. "I also played Ram," he remembers. "But the role I was most lauded for was that of Ravan." In fact, Pathak remembers little of his portrayal of Ram or Hanuman. When probed, he asks instead that he be allowed to speak about Ravan, the antagonist of the epic, Hinduism's favorite villain.

"Main hi Brahma. Main hi Vishnu. Main hi Sarvesh hoon/ Sab jhuko mere saamne, kyonki main Lankesh hoon. (I am Brahma. I am Vishnu. I am everything/ Everyone bow down before me, for I am the Lord of Lanka.)"

Oblivious to his surroundings, Pathak bellows the lines out, playing the megalomaniacal demon king of Lanka to near perfection. He last recited them six years ago, when he had visited a relative in Balliya, UP. Members of the local Ramlila community were distraught because the actor who was to play Ravan, a Delhi actor, had cancelled at the last minute. Pathak stepped in.

"They made me wear a torn costume. They gave me a broken tin sword. That actor from Delhi had taken Ravan's costume and props with him. But when I went on stage a strange energy seemed to flow through me. I felt as though Ravan had entered my body."

His eyes are ablaze now. I can sense Dubey, who is still around, getting nervous. Pathak requested that he be allowed to take off a large saffron ribbon he wore, that was marked with the words "Bharatiya Janata Party", with a Modi badge stuck to its center. Dubey had asked him to keep it on. Now he seems unsure.

Yet the Modi badge is quite irrelevant. It's a Saturday evening at India Gate, the most crowded it gets here. Families on a weekly outing. Couples out for a quiet moment.

Pathak's voice booms out:

"Chalta hoon jis zameen par main, bhoochal aayega/ Zameen toh cheez hai kya, Aasmaan bhi kaap jaayega. (The ground I happen to walk on will witness an earthquake/ What's in the earth anyhow, even the skies will shake)."

A Modi lookalike, dressed as Modi, spontaneously playing Ravan before an unsuspecting throng of Delhi's middle class, a 15-minute walk away from the Prime Minister's Office - the scene is as surreal as it gets.

Pathak continues unaware, full of fervor. "When they heard me," says Pathak, "they said that Dilli waala Ravan (that Ravan from Delhi) couldn't have dreamt of playing this as well as you have."

* * *

His other passion is politics. Pathak first stood for an election as an independent in 1991. "Friends and well-wishers encouraged me," he said. "They knew me as someone engaged with social issues." So he stood for the post of Ward Member at the Saharanpur Municipal Corporation. "I lost by two votes," he remembers. "But my opponent, who was from the BJP, told me that I deserved to have won." Pathak claims that when he went to inspect one of the two polling booths he discovered a man diligently stamping the lotus on many voting slips and slipping them into the ballot. "Bogus voting."

1999. This time he stood for MP. He was encouraged by friends, wellwishers and "established journalists". He joined a new party called the Rashtriya Saavdhaan Party (literally, the 'National Alert Party') which was headed by a popular karate instructor. He ascribes his losing, once again, to the BJP, to the way the ticket distribution played out in the party. "There was one Nirbhay Pal Sharma in the BJP who should have gotten the ticket," he says. This would have suited him fine because the Brahmin votes in the constituency would have then been divided between Pathak and Sharma, both Brahmins. Instead, the BJP gave its ticket to Nakli Singh. Sharma defected from the party and stood as an independent. Now the Brahmin votes were divided between Pathak, Sharma and the BJP. He still got 8,000 votes, he claims. He left his party too, mid-election, "because they were resorting to unfair means".

2001. Ward Member elections. Pathak stood as an independent and came third because "the candidates the big parties had fielded were too well known".

And finally, 2012: Pathak joined the Vanchit Jamaat Party (translation: a congregation of deprived people). "They asked me to run for MLA and then abandoned me," Pathak says. "No posters, pamphlets, rallies… nothing." The BJP won. Pathak got 293 votes. "That election left me in a state of shock," he says.

In the same year, Pathak decided to form his own party. He claims to have enrolled 10,000 members all over UP. He has named it the Manavtawaadi Party, which translates into the Humanist Party.

* * *

We are walking through the crowds at India Gate looking for chai. There's none to be found. People often hail Pathak with a "Namaste Modiji". This is followed each time with Dubey lunging forward to nudge him and say: "Modiji namaste kijiye (Modiji return the Namaste)."

A woman with a child approaches him and asks nervously how he's connected to Modi. "I'm his younger brother," Pathak replies calmly. 

Pathak sees the fact that he resembles Modi as some sort of divine sign. He is a great believer in signs. Twenty-one years ago, after a long spell of trying to have children, he had said to the gods that he wouldn't worship them anymore. "I said I would drink every night, nurture bad habits and not even take part in the Ramlila." He had a dream that night, in which a voice said to him: "Do the Ramlila. And be patient." He had a daughter in a year's time. He now has three daughters and a son.

"Because I accepted that it was a sign, I began reading about Modi," says Pathak of his uncanny resemblance to the BJP leader. "I began listening to his speeches, calling relatives settled in Gujarat to ask about him." And it was this, he says, that made him decide, on January 27, 2014, to begin his 'cycle yatra' to campaign for.

Ask Pathak what really drew him to Modi and you realize he went about his fact-finding in a very strange way.

"He's really developed Gujarat. I haven't been there but the stories I hear are unbelievable. I called my cousin who lives in Ahmedabad. She said the roads were excellent. She said she would feel no fear in walking about the city with kilos of gold, late at night."

Pathak's own vision for Saharanpur: "I want there to be malls, more employment creators. I want there to be good roads. I want industry - particularly the textile and woodwork industries here that have taken a blow with time to be resurrected. And most importantly - law and order.

"Modiji was very hard-working right from his childhood. And honest. He would sell tea to earn his living. He ran to catch up with a speeding train once, nearly putting his life at risk to return change to a customer." Pathak too used to sell cucumbers and boiled chickpeas on trains, all of this alongside his studies. It is a piece of personal lore he never tires of repeating.

"Modi is fearless. He caught a baby alligator once as a child and brought it home. When the Pakistanis had beheaded an Indian soldier last year (early January) it was the tiger of Gujarat who roared back at Pakistan instead of the Prime Minister. And observe his body language during his speeches. He's so masculine." Pathak seems to stick out his chest as he says this. Pathak's chest measures "around 33 inches", not the chappan (56) that Modi boasted of, by way of metaphor, in one of his speeches.

Pathak's brightest memories of youth involve his exercising regularly and building his body. The Physical Education Instructor keeps talking about how he would "have an endless supply of milk and ghee thanks to a cow my father kept". How he did a lot of manual labor, which "helped build my physique."

And then, he's out with it, the thing you have been afraid to articulate to him all afternoon. "In fact, if you look at Modiji's life and mine, you will find many parallels."

More: "Even if you examine the speeches I would give and compare them to Modi's, apart from the fact that he keeps saying 'brothers and sisters', they're almost identical."

Then he really stretches it: "Like Modiji I too stay with my mother. She advises me on most of my decisions."

Pathak's first yatra to rally support for Modi began at the Saharanpur clock tower. A small crowd had gathered. "They asked me whether I was from Gujarat. I said: No. I belong to your town."

This becomes a recurrent theme: "Some people I have met in my journeys have even asked me if my mother had ever been to Gujarat. They ask: Kahin Narayan Dutt Tiwari waali baat to nahin (I hope it's not like the Narayan Dutt Tiwari case) - a sly reference to the Congress leader who has fought a paternity suit tooth and nail for years and lost. About 20 days ago, he was photographed hugging his son at a press conference, saying he would support him if he were to contest elections.

Finally: "People keep asking me to solve their issues. Electricity, water, setting up tube-wells… they ask as if I were Modi himself."

One of the main tenets of the Modi campaign has been to identify him with a large section of the poor and downtrodden - to sell a success story. On December 20, 2013 when Modi spoke in Varanasi he said: "There are some people who are saying a chaiwalla can't be Prime Minister of India. Brothers and sisters, I ask you: Is being a chaiwalla a crime?"

This identification with class, instead of caste is one that Pathak too espouses now. "The Brahman community in Saharanpur supports Modi, along with me," says Pathak. "Even though he is a from a lower caste." On a wall in the living room of his Saharanpur home Pathak has hung two images - of himself and Modi - one above the other. In between these is hung a scroll that reads: "Main Modiji ko kyon chahta hoon…(Why I love Modiji)." Among many other generalizations are the words 'pragatisheel (progressive)' and 'adhunik (modern)'.

He brings up his last yatra, just a week ago, to Gopalganj in Bihar, where Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav was born. On March 17, Yadav had tweeted:

"Modi Maharashtra-Gujarat mein Thackeray ke saath milkar Bihariyon ki fajihat karwata hai, use Bihariyon se vote mangne ka adhikaar nahin hai. (Modi, with Thackeray in Maharashtra and Gujarat, attacks Biharis. He doesn't have the right to ask for their votes.)"

Pathak had read a report of this tweet when he was in Varanasi and decided that, since his wife hailed from Gopalganj too, he would stay with his in-laws and campaign against Lalu. "The BJP spends lakhs of rupees organizing rallies," says Pathak. "If Modiji told me, I would get 50,000 people to his rally for no cost at all."

* * *

We are driving towards Raisina Hill now. Pathak has borrowed some more chewing tobacco, this time from a toy seller at India Gate.

Delusions refuse to be lonely, and Pathak's delusions love company.

His next target is the BJP itself. "Without Modiji they wouldn't get even 100 seats," he says. He's upset with Rajnath Singh for not meeting him today. He's especially upset with Laxmikant Bajpai, president of the BJP's UP unit, for insulting him when he tried to sit next to him, dressed as Modi, at a function.

"Nakli Modi, stop this drama!" Bajpai had hollered.

"After all the work I did," Pathak says. It is the only moment in the evening when he seems truly sad. He has written a letter to Modi too, requesting a meeting, a darshan (sighting, as with a god) in Pathak's words. There has been no reply.

Finally, Pathak attacks the Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal for saying that Modi is allied to business houses like the Adani or Reliance groups. "How can he accuse Modiji of corruption when he lives so simply, has hardly any property and no family of his own to support?"

I explain that Modi is running a very expensive election campaign. That he is infamous for the sops he gave business houses in Gujarat. "The party is responsible for the campaign," he says. "I can't vouch for the BJP. But Modi has no Swiss Bank accounts."

Pathak knows this. He just knows.

So much so that when Kejriwal addressed a series of uncomfortable questions to Modi, Pathak wrote a letter riddled with questions to Kejriwal. Questions such as how much Kejriwal earned, what his assets were, and whether these were more or less than Modi's. Pathak's own assets, when he stood for the Vidhan Sabha two years ago, were valued at Rs 18,000.

Finally, a minute away from South Block, Godhrakaand - the carnage after Godhra - comes up. "The SIT has given Modi a clean chit." But that clean chit is being questioned. A book has been written. A petition filed. "Yes but if the Supreme Court has upheld something we must respect it."

And for this exoneration too Pathak is drawing from his life, and it brings him to the final parallel: July 21, 2008. The Trial Court at Saharanpur sentenced Pathak to three years of imprisonment on charges relating to abduction and attempt to murder of a home guard.

"I was framed by the establishment," says Pathak. "I had taken on a police constable who was harassing a woman. He had extorted money from her and assaulted her. I helped her file a complaint under the IPC's Section 420 against him."

After spending 21 days in jail, Pathak was finally granted bail by the High Court which, he claims, made observations in its order which displayed a disapproval for the lower court's judgment.

Pathak got his very own clean chit. The parallels are complete.

        * * *

We're on Raisina Hill. Pathak asks what this place is. I tell him this is where the most powerful offices of government are situated. It is where the President lives.

"It's very quiet here," he says. I show him South Block and tell him that's where the Prime Minister's office is.

There is silence. Then: "There is a conspiracy." Pathak leans towards me to whisper in my ear. "There is a conspiracy within the BJP. They want to prevent Modi from becoming PM. If they succeed, I will commit suicide."

The word 'suicide' is uttered with urgency, as if now is the moment of reckoning. As if we will know in the next five minutes.

"Evidence alone won't break the Modi narrative," social scientist Shiv Visvanathan had said at the launch of Manoj Mitta's The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, a few days ago. "Gujarat is not normal. It has been normalized by a set of narratives the (Siddharth) Varadarajans and the (Manoj) Mittas cannot challenge. Modi is the better story teller."

Pathak, standing in front of South Block this evening, throws up two narrative strands of that story.

One is of canny opportunism: "If Modiji gives me his support, I can win from any constituency he asks me to stand from," he says.

The other strand is the fulfillment of unrequited dreams -- Modi as doppelganger to Pathak's desires.

"What if Modi does become PM?" I ask Pathak. "What will you do then?" "I will take sanyas," he says. "Retire from active life."

He stands back to take a picture. It is dark by now. The flash results in an image that is a dark silhouette of a man who looks like Modi, against a board that reads: South Block.

Rishi Majumder is Senior Editor at the cinema magazine The Big Indian Picture (thebigindianpicture.com) and co-producer at the online music show, BalconyTV (balconytv.com) in India.