The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, joined Bear Grylls on the latter’s survival TV programme Man vs Wild to talk about his relationship with nature and growing up in a poor family, all the while crossing a freezing river on a flimsy raft.

In the episode broadcast in India on Monday, the two men were filmed on the riverbank of the country’s Jim Corbett National Park, with deer and a herd of elephants seen in the distance.

The boy who once sold tea at a railway station has become the most influential Indian leader in generations, winning a landslide in the 2019 elections. Or so goes the story that has become the core of Narendra Modi’s extraordinary appeal.

Modi was born in 1958 to a poor family in western India’s Gujarat state, where he developed a strong dislike for the ruling Congress party as a result of hanging around a political office near his father’s tea stall.

While still a child, he started attending daily meetings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said to be the world’s largest volunteer organisation, whose Hindu nationalist ideology envisions the country’s diverse Hindu population as a single nation with a sacred culture that should be given primacy in India.

Hindu nationalists were sidelined by India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose vision of India was of a secular nation at ease with its bewildering plurality. Their parties, including Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), struggled to win more than 10% of the national vote for decades until the 1990s, when they started to expand on the back of a national campaign to demolish a 16th-century Mughal mosque and replace it with a Hindu temple.

BJP’s support was limited to wealthier Hindus in the country’s north and west, with resistance to the party from poor, marginalised Hindus, Muslims and south Indians thought to be permanent hurdles to Hindu nationalist domination.

Modi’s magnetism, especially his personal branding as a tea boy who climbed to the country’s highest ranks, has changed those calculations, drawing vast support from the country’s emerging middle and lower-middle classes. Young Indians had grown up being told their country was on the cusp of becoming a superpower. In Modi they had a leader who spoke as if it already was.

Alongside aspiration, the BJP promotes a vision of Hindu cultural supremacy that sidelines the country’s 300m minority population. As chief minister of Gujarat state, Modi was a firebrand Hindutva campaigner. In 2002, anti-Muslim riots in his state killed at least 1,000 people, resulting in the future prime minister becoming an international pariah who was banned from entering the US.

In response, Modi presented himself as an outsider being attacked by elites: a refrain that would become a central part of his political messaging, that he was constantly being targeted by the English-speaking media out of Delhi.

When popular disgust at corruption scandals plaguing the previous Congress government boiled over into street protests in 2011, it provided the rightwing populist leader a national springboard. His mastery of political theatre, and finger on the pulse of Indians, has now secured him the strongest mandate of any leader in decades.

 Michael Safi in Delhi


Photograph: Adnan Abidi/X90166

Grylls’s remark that the river was full of crocodiles prompted Modi, wearing a cap and mackintosh, to tell him how as a poor boy, with no bathroom at home, he used to bathe in a pond every day. Apparently, one day, he found a baby crocodile and took it home, but his mother scolded him and told him to return the animal to the river.

It was one of several childhood anecdotes related by Modi. He also recalled how his father used to celebrate the occasion of the first rain of the season by buying 25 to 30 postcards and sending them to relatives, writing simply, “Today it rained in our village” to express his joy.

Modi went on to speak of how his uncle once suggested that, given his parents’ straitened circumstances, they could try selling wood to burn for cooking. But his grandmother vetoed the idea: “My grandmother said no to selling wood. She said wood has life in it. The environment is intrinsic to our lives.”

The main task of the episode was for Grylls and Modi to cross the river. Grylls attempted to drum up some drama by breathlessly pointing to some tiger tracks in the mud and then making a spear out of a branch that he offered to Modi as protection. Modi politely declined and fashioned a makeshift raft from branches, reeds and some conveniently located tarpaulin.

The two men got into the raft, and Modi seemed unfazed when it started pouring with rain. Grylls proceeded to dial up the deference and asked Modi how he coped with fear or nervousness. Modi replied that such was his “positivity”, he had never experienced those emotions.

Modi also told Grylls that his love of nature had begun when he left home as a teenager. “I went to the Himalayas since I liked nature. I met people there and stayed with him. I got to learn a lot from them.”

Indian viewers might have been taken aback after seeing this side to their recently re-elected prime minister as, in the public consciousness, his image is that of a strongman – iron-willed, stern, and boasting a “56-inch chest”, a claim Modi once made to project the idea of a macho leader who gets things done.

Other famous personalities that have featured on Man vs Wild are tennis player Roger Federer and former US president Barack Obama.


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