As the new millennium approached, the buzz about the end of the world and impending catastrophe raised great panic in the West. People had gone paranoid selling their homes and hoarding groceries and I was travelling from coast to coast assuring them that no such thing would happen. Thankfully the World did not disappear and it was business as usual!
In August, 2000, I was in New York City to address the UN Millennium World Peace Summit, which opened with an address by the UN Secretary General Kofi Anan. A huge contingent from the Indian subcontinent was present. Perhaps for the first time a large number of saffron clad swamis had come to a UN summit.
The speeches had been live translated in many languages, but not Hindi. Many of the swamis and acharyas could hardly understand the proceedings. There was palpable frustration and disappointment in the group. At that moment, I felt that we had far better organizational skills and the potential to do much bigger events.
The speakers were given five minutes each. I finished my speech in four. Satyanarayan Goenkaji was to speak after me. He went on speaking beyond the stipulated time. The warning bell rang – once, twice, thrice, yet he continued. Eventually, he had to be stopped and taken away from the podium, causing an embarrassment to the Indian contingent.
After the summit, we were sitting in the lobby. A man in a blue Safari suit was sitting right across me. Goenkaji was seated next to him, complaining that he flew all the way for 18 hours, and was not even given half an hour to speak. After a while, Dr B K Modi, the Coordinator for the Indian subcontinent for the Millennium World Peace Summit, introduced the man in blue safari as Sri Narendra Modi, an RSS pracharak. Narendra Modi greeted me and said, “Your speech was short and to the point and everyone appreciated it.” I was not sure if he was complimenting me or giving a subtle message about what had happened earlier in the day. I smiled and moved away. This was my first encounter with Narendra Modi.
In December, 2001, a few months after Modi became the Chief Minister of Gujarat, I received a phone call from Mehul, one of our coordinators in Ahmedabad. He told me that a reliable source had informed him of a riot being planned to create trouble for the new Modi government. The riots broke out in February, 2002 and numbed the nation into grief, sorrow and distrust. Nobody could and should condone the scale of violence that took place following the burning of karsevaks in a train.
Soon after the riots, the Art of Living volunteers started trauma care activities in relief camps. I visited many camps in Ahmedabad including the Shah Alam Camp. I listened to the plight of the victims from both the communities. It was a horror story laced with overflowing emotions and victim-hood. I came back to Bangalore without meeting the Chief Minister and we continued our relief efforts for many months.
I met prominent people on both sides to keep the interfaith dialogue going. A few people alleged that Sangh Pariwar had set their own people on fire in the train to create an excuse to attack the minorities. I disagreed.
It was in these sombre settings that I met Narendra Modi for the second time. I visited Gujarat again in 2004. By then, the battle lines were clearly drawn. Modi had become a pariah. Bashing him had become a fashion. People who differed even slightly with this trend were branded communal or belonging to RSS and VHP.
I decided to confront him directly. As soon as we settled down for our meeting, I looked into his eyes and asked him, “Did you do all that was in your capacity to stop these riots?” The directness of my question surprised him. After regaining his composure, he replied with moist eyes, “Guruji, do you also believe in this propaganda?”
Nothing much was spoken after that. I knew he could not have played a role in the riots. Why would a chief minister paint his face black and destroy his own reputation? It didn’t make any sense. We sat in silence for few minutes. I assured him that the truth was on his side and one day the whole nation would recognize him.
In the years that followed, whenever I would visit Gujarat, he would come and sit with me in meditation for a few minutes. Often he shared what work he had done in villages, knowing that rural development is dear to me. Sometimes, he would also participate in our satsangs. He is a staunch devotee of Ma Durga and has a very strong spiritual side that is not widely known.
I first met him in the US, where he has not been welcomed for several years. The last time he went there was in 2000 as a devout social worker. Much water has flown under the bridge in the last 14 years. His next visit might be as the head of the world’s largest democracy.