Uncovering a ‘humble’ chaiwallah’s billion-dollar lifestyle

It could put every fat cat in Power Delhi and Khan Market to shame even as taxpayers foot Narendra Modi’s astronomical, wasteful bill.

ByVrinda Gopinath
Uncovering a ‘humble’ chaiwallah’s billion-dollar lifestyle
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Can Narendra Modi stop his tiresome habit of invoking his humble origins and pitting it against rich and entitled Power Delhi? Modi has never tired of saying he is an “outsider” from Gujarat, and that he hasn’t been—and never will be—accepted by “Lutyens’ Delhi”, a euphemism for the Old Power Establishment or Left, Nehruvian, secular once-governing clique.

Now that may be true: the Liberal-Secularist is vehemently opposed to Modi’s RSS-BJP brand of divisive Hindutva politics. However, Modi is not talking about an ideological battle as much as harping needlessly on his impoverished background: of a workhorse versus a prince, a backward caste versus a well-born, rough versus refined. This, of course, is accompanied by whirring images of Modi in tapasya (rigour of austerity and penance), his mother Heeraben living in a hovel, and other such heart-tugging brand persuasions. Of late, Modi has even jocularly said in interviews, given to favourable news organisations, that his only regret as he nears the completion of his term as prime minister is that he could not make the people of Lutyens’ Delhi his own, nor he part of them. At other times, he has hit back, saying that the “Khan Market gang”, another allusion to Power Delhi, cannot dismantle his image because it was not them which created his image, but it was of his own making through 45 years of tapasya.

This narrative of Modi’s exclusion has been faithfully reinforced by sympathetic and cloying commentators and media persons who insist that chaiwallah Modi (there are still no confirmed reports that he worked as a tea-seller) will never be accepted by the champagne-swilling Lutyens’ set. And the myth-making continues as Modi insists on having a one-way conversation with the media, with no questions asked while he continues to retell the same score.

Modi’s jibes and name-calling of Power Delhi is yet another Goebbelsian attempt to say the same thing again and again till it becomes the truth. But it cannot be a tale as phony and so far away from the truth. For a chaste chaiwallah, Modi’s splashy lifestyle as prime minister has come with a billion dollar bill for the taxpayer.

Consider this:

For starters, if the country’s humble prime minister really wants to lead by living a life of humility and austerity—in deference to the millions of poor and impoverished people he constantly refers to with such touching sympathy—he could perhaps exit from his grand, five-house official residence in the intoxicating world of Lutyens’ Delhi, that not only takes up the entire road, but is spread over 12 acres, in the leafy boulevards of the Capital state. While the layout of the five-mansion residence is secret for security reasons, there are private quarters, guest rooms for visitors, and accommodation for family members, apart from salons to entertain. It’s all run efficiently by a staff of over 50 gardeners, chauffeurs, housekeepers, cooks, and electricians. There are barbers, hairdressers and tailors on call, apart from doctors and nurses on duty round the clock with a state-of-the-art fitted ambulance on stand-by. It’s a household expense that runs into crores of rupees.

Imagine if humble Modi had downsized his personal quarters to a functional minimum, not necessarily outside Lutyens’ zone but in a more modest house—hasn’t he tired of telling the world how he works a punishing 20-hour work schedule, barely sleeping for three-four hours? It would have sent a slap to the slothful and entitled Lutyens’-Khan Market gang he so reviles, and would have also revealed the prime minister’s true beginnings of not just being a chaiwallah’s son (the fable flip-flops from Modi being a tea-seller to being the son of one) but as an ascetic RSS pracharak too, brought up on a rigid and rigorous discipline of life.

I suppose it takes a lot of money to keep Modi humble and poor.

If there are five bullet-proof BMW sedans to ferry him around in the city—though he’s reportedly switched to Range Rovers—there’s Air India One, the plush Boeing 747 jumbo jet, which Modi uses whenever he flies on official visits abroad. It made sense to have the jumbo when prime ministers ferried officials, business delegations, and a sizeable media contingent on tours. But a media-averse Modi travels without them, and with only a bare minimum of officials. As RTI queries have revealed, Air India has sent a whopping bill of ₹443.4 crore for the PM’s trips abroad so far, on aircraft maintenance and setting up a secure hotline, though the airline is yet to calculate the expenses for Modi’s trips to five more countries stretching from Argentina to Japan. The Prime Minister’s Office has declined to give any calculation on Modi’s domestic trips, saying it does not keep an account of it.

Now, couldn’t the humble PM opt for a business jet, with less opulence and luxury, and save taxpayer’s money? Instead, the poor and humble PM has splashed out on his trips abroad with an astronomical bill of ₹2,021 crore in the last five years, which amounts to ₹400 crore a year. His fans say that previous prime ministers too blew up similar amounts of money, but aren’t we dealing with a frugal and ascetic RSS pracharak today?

But Modi’s vanity doesn’t end here: it’s in the publicity sweepstakes that expenses have blown through the roof. As RTI queries reveal, Modi spent nearly ₹4,400 crore on publicity alone (footed by the government and taxpayer) in just four years, until 2018, to bolster his image along with the schemes launched by him. Unfortunately, reports on the performance of the schemes fade in the blaze of Modi’s publicity blitzkrieg. In election year now, the mind boggles with the campaign bill, as reports say Modi’s BJP got 94 per cent of election bonds issued (running into ₹210 crore). Its Facebook and other social media is a multi-million dollar industry.

But it’s in his personal vanity that Modi takes the best shots. Though Modi would like to appear not to have overly planned his dressing for the day, he has taken dressing to levels where even the international media has reported on his sartorial pomp and flourishes. Modi has dumped the pracharak’s fetish for military khaki and orderliness. Instead, he’s declared that his colour choices and mixing is “god-given”. Apart from divining his colour palette of orange, crimson, and bright colours, he now prefers them in silent shades, according to his tailor, Bipin Chauhan from Ahmedabad. Chauhan had once admitted that Modi told him that he cannot compromise on three things: his eyes, voice and clothes.

The Modi kurtas, Modi jackets, lushly embroidered cashmere shawls, his bespoke suits, apart from his Bvlgari glasses, Movado watch and Mont Blanc pens—these are hardly reminiscent of his poor, tapasya-seeking adulthood. Modi seems to revel in opulence and high living. And, has anyone forgotten his monogrammed suit (reportedly prepared at the cost of ₹10 lakh and auctioned at a base price of ₹11 lakh, although it was gifted to him) or declaring his 56-inch chest, of virility and machismo—a far cry from the rigours of an ascetic and fakir.

And has Modi confirmed rumours of his hair transplant and personal grooming now that celebrity hair stylist Jawed Habib has joined the BJP? Apparently also Modi’s personal hairdresser, Habib hinted that Modi has a haircut every week when he said that only a weekly clip can keep his hair and beard in such perfect shape; and that they are in the perfect shade of white. Reports on Modi’s weekly “diamond facial”, to eating expensive mushrooms for his now fair and buffed skin, has kept the media agog for a while.

But when it comes to education, there’s nothing Modi can do to reinvent himself. In fact, Modi fakes it when he can’t take it. He still has to live down his degree in “Entire Political Science” and the verdict on whether his graduation is real or not can actually disqualify him from standing for election—but the PM has sneered at his blue-stocking colleagues in Power Delhi when he said “hard work is more powerful than Harvard”. That too, when addressing crowds in towns of backward but hopeful Uttar Pradesh. If you can’t get a college degree from an illustrious university, be anti-intellectual, is his roaring credo.

Life, for Modi today, is a high-maintenance gig.

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