Mumbai: A Surat court’s two-year sentence to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case Thursday has put the spotlight on a different Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — Purnesh Modi, a Gujarat MLA, known to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It was on this Modi’s complaint that the Surat court Thursday handed Gandhi a 2-year prison sentence for having allegedly defamed the Modi surname in a 2019 speech in Karnataka.
Modi is a three-time MLA from Surat West, one of the bastions of the BJP in Gujarat. His party colleagues describe him as a “hardcore BJP karyakarta” who had worked his way up from being a booth convener to state cabinet minister.
Known as the BJP’s OBC (Other Backward Classes) face in Surat, Purnesh Modi has more in common with the PM than just his last name. Like Narendra Modi, Purnesh too grew up in poverty and worked as a tea seller when he was young, local BJP leaders from Surat say.
He also worked as a daily wage labourer for a while before joining a local law firm as an apprentice. He developed an interest in law and eventually studied to become a lawyer, party leaders further said.
ThePrint tried reaching Purnesh Modi via calls and messages, but his phone was switched off. This copy will be updated when a response is received.
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Tea seller to lawyer to BJP MLA
Purnesh Modi has been a committed BJP worker, largely known to be in the good books of the PM and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. He has worked his way up in the party, serving various positions such as BJP booth convener, ward pramukh (chief), BJP corporator for the Surat Municipal Corporation, standing committee chairman and even head of the BJP Surat unit for two terms starting 2010.
Talking to ThePrint, an associate of Purnesh Modi, not wanting to be named, said, “He had headed the party’s relief team from Surat to Kutch in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2001. At that time, Narendra Modi had patted him on his back.”
Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s national general secretary, had overseen the rehabilitation efforts in Kutch for the party.
Purnesh Modi first entered the Gujarat assembly through a bypoll in 2013, necessitated by the death of sitting BJP MLA Kishore Vankawala. Party sources said that while BJP’s Anandiben Patel was in favour of a different candidate, local party workers wanted Modi to get the ticket. Narendra Modi, who was then the Gujarat CM, took the final call.
Rise and fall as minister
A Gujarat BJP leader told ThePrint, on condition of anonymity, that Purnesh Modi is not known to get along too well with Gujarat BJP president C. R. Paatil. And so, when the party picked Purnesh to join the newly-appointed Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel’s cabinet in the 2021 reshuffle, the move surprised many.
“It is said that Purnesh Modi’s name was an eleventh hour addition at the behest of the BJP’s senior leadership,” the leader said.
The Surat MLA started his ministerial journey on a buoyant note. About a month after being sworn in as cabinet minister, Purnesh Modi, who held portfolios such as roads and buildings, transport, civil aviation, and tourism and pilgrimage, launched an Android mobile app in his own name and urged people to use it to send suggestions and complaints about departments under him.
As minister, he also arranged for the pilgrimage of 4,000 people in his constituency to Somnath and other religious places in the state from Surat, flagging 75 buses.
However, less than a year later, in August 2022, Patel divested Modi of the important roads and buildings portfolio just three months before the assembly polls. Party sources say the rap to Modi was because Gujarat’s roads had suffered greatly during the heavy rains that year and there were memes doing the rounds mocking the Gujarat model.
Ahead of the Gujarat assembly polls, Modi had courted controversy by justifying the demolitions across Bet Dwarka, an island off the Okha Port with a majority Muslim population. In a series of tweets that he later deleted, the minister claimed that the number of mosques had drastically increased since 2005, the number of Muslim voters had also ballooned and that the people there get their children married to families from Pakistan. He also alleged that the island had become a drug smuggling hub.
In 2022, he retained the party’s bastion Surat West with a fat margin of over a lakh votes. This time, however, the leader did not find a place in Patel’s cabinet.
Purnesh Modi’s suit against Rahul Gandhi came in the wake of the latter’s speech at a rally. In the 2019 Karnataka rally, Gandhi had said “all thieves have Modi as the common surname”, taking the names of Lalit Modi, Nirav Modi and the PM in the same breath.
“The complaint was not political. Purnesh ji stays away from political controversies. The complaint was because Rahul Gandhi had hurt the entire Modi community of Gujarat with his remarks,” said Ashok Gohil, former treasurer of BJP’s Surat unit, who worked under Purnesh Modi when the latter was BJP Surat president.
“Purnesh ji is the executive president of the Modi Samaj of Gujarat. On behalf of the entire community, he had to take objection to such a statement,” Gohil added.
(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)
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