Business Standard

Sushil Modi, a gentleman politician who represented a different BJP

Veteran politician played a key role in negotiating GST talks with the states

Former Bihar Deputy Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi

Former Bihar Deputy Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi (Illustration: Ajay Mohanty)

Aditi Phadnis New Delhi
In big political organisations like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there are so many gifted people jostling for space that many remarkable individuals tend not to get the appreciation they deserve. Sushil Kumar Modi was one such.

When he died of cancer on Monday at age 71, Sushil Modi was a Rajya Sabha member of the party. Even the BJP has underplayed his contribution to politics and his commitment to ideology and liberal values.

In the beginning, there were three in Bihar: Nitish Kumar, an engineer-turned-politician; Lalu Prasad, an itinerant student leader who became the president of Patna University Students Union; and Sushil Modi. Ravi Shankar Prasad, a few years junior, later joined the group.

As an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activist, Sushil Modi participated in Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-Congress movement in 1974. He was arrested five times under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and jailed for 24 months. This was after his family had “invested” in him: He was sent to three schools, two of which were run by missionaries. He came second in the examination in the botany department at Patna University in 1973. (He was expecting to fail but in the last month before the examinations gave his all to his studies, he told ‘Business Standard’ once with disarming honesty)

His first attempt at business after his Bachelor of Science was the launch of the Modi Computer Institute in 1987, taking a Rs 70,000 bank loan. He had just married Jessy George, a Roman Catholic who had grown up in Bombay. The two met on a train journey to that city. She was on a trip to go bird-watching. He was on the upper berth and she on the lower. They talked all night – and he realised that if he was going to start a family, he needed to earn a living. BJP patriarch Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to whom he had just dashed off a pro forma letter of impending nuptials, travelled on his own to Patna for the wedding. He urged Sushil Modi to join active politics. By now Modi had realised business was not for him. It closed down and he returned to politics, taking Vajpayee’s advice.

Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar may have been associates but their political trajectories diverged over time. The 1990s were the years of social assertion in Bihar – but also of great political ferment as Lalu Prasad’s chief ministership saw a crackdown on the BJP in the state that ended with the arrest of LK Advani during his Rath yatra. But in tandem, the BJP, now dominated by Sushil Modi and Ravi Shankar Prasad, was training its guns on Lalu’s administration. The fodder scam against Lalu was first “broken” by Sushil Modi with Prasad fighting the legal battle.

When Lalu Prasad was eventually indicted, Modi became a lieutenant of Nitish Kumar who became chief minister with help from BJP. Many in the Bihar BJP – especially the upper caste section – were deeply suspicious of Sushil Modi, specifically his relationship with Nitish (Modi served as the deputy chief minister of Bihar from 2005 to 2013, and again between 2017 and 2020. In some BJP sections, the perception was Sushil Modi put Nitish’s interests above the BJP’s).

Nitish didn’t help matters and thought nothing of mocking and poking fun at the BJP. During the 2010 Assembly elections, Kumar let the BJP know that Bihar had no requirement for then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to campaign for the National Democratic Alliance. “Hamare paas ek Modi (Sushil Modi) hai hee to dusare Modi (Narendra Modi) ki kya zaroorat hai (since we have one Modi, what is the need for another Modi!),” Kumar said. Narendra Modi stayed away from Bihar. Sushil Modi paid back the compliment. In an interview to ‘The Telegraph’ newspaper he said: “Nitish is Prime Minister material.”

The first sign that there was serious distance between him and the state unit came when his nominees were kept out of the BJP campaign committee for the 2020 Assembly elections. He led from the front by charging that Chirag Paswan was going to prove a spoiler through his (Paswan’s) attacks on Nitish Kumar. But many in the BJP silently applauded Paswan for attacking the JD(U).

However, his shining moment was as Bihar’s Finance Minister (Ratan Tata came to Patna for the first time during that period to scout investment possibilities and confessed it was his first trip to the state in nearly 25 years) and as the head of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) task force when the tax was being negotiated with the states (2011-13). In 2012, he played a key role in reviving talks over GST when he was able to establish a purposeful working relationship with then finance minister P Chidambaram. Following that, GST talks began to move forward. Later, he was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s right hand man in helping negotiate the complex relations with the states.

Sushil Modi was tasked as the BJP’s principal speaker in the debate on the last budget. He spoke eloquently, and later told ‘Business Standard’ he was appalled at the quality of some speeches, including those by some of his party members. He detailed the amount of prep and reading he did while drafting his speech.

A little-known fact about Sushil Modi was his fascination with technology. He was among the first persons in Patna to buy the latest iPhone and explained in technical detail why he junked his BlackBerry decades ago. He retained till the last his belief that all have the right to practise the religion they want and was deeply disturbed at the Graham Staines incident (the Christian priest was burnt to death in 1999) in Odisha, voicing his disapproval publicly.

Sushil Modi was a gentleman to the end and represented a different BJP.
Disclaimer: These are personal views of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or the Business Standard newspaper

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First Published: May 14 2024 | 3:23 PM IST

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