When Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Paris that he was the very first member of Alliance Francaise (AF) Ahmedabad when it was started in 1981, he was exaggerating a bit. The receipt issued to him is in December 1981 in numbered eight, and his membership number was A-011, so there were undoubtedly a few ahead of him. But when it comes to speeches, a little hyperbole can possibly be pardoned.
“Narendrabhai certainly became a member on the very first day,” says Achille Forler, the 73-year-old founder director of AF Ahmedabad. “At that time, I didn’t realise he was in politics, though he gave his address as Hedgevar Bhavan, which is the RSS headquarters in Ahmedabad. The signature on his membership card is that of my wife Chantal.”
Forler and Modi are contemporaries and became friends. “We had over 1,000 members, but Narendrabhai was one the few I made a connection with. I would be standing at the door greeting people at every cultural event and I remember Narendrabhai was a regular. One time he came to my office asking permission to borrow an expensive coffee table book on photography from the library. I remembered that and later, when the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was visiting Ahmedabad, I invited Narendrabhai to meet him,” says Forler, who moved on to the French Embassy in Delhi in 1989 and now lives in Mumbai.
Modi remained a member of AF Ahmedabad for eight years and judging by his speech in Paris, he has happy memories. Pavan Bakeri, President of AF Ahmedabad, first heard of the connection in 2013, when Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. “I had gone to invite him for a concert we were organising and he told me he was once a regular member of AF. He said he used to use the library a lot.”
Chief Minister Modi never did attend that concert and AF Ahmedabad, for its part, has never leveraged the connection (though it did dig out the original membership card and receipt and send him a copy when he became PM).
VO! spoke to Emmanuel Bottiau, Director of AF Ahmedabad as he was waiting to board a flight to Paris from Delhi airport. We asked him: how did it feel to hear AF Ahmedabad mentioned in the Prime Minister’s speech on Thursday? “I am very happy, of course. We were aware that the Prime Minister was a member, but we never publicised it. AF is a cultural association and we are not allowed to get into politics,” he said.
Founded by some of the most eminent names in Ahmedabad society, AF Ahmedabad was one of the first international cultural centres in Gujarat and it must have been an aspirational draw for the 31-year-old Modi. The Centre’s first President was Mrinalini Sarabhai, who was succeeded by BV Doshi. One of the later Presidents was photographer Parmanand Dalwadi, who says, “I was a member since the very beginning but I don’t recall meeting Mr Modi there. He was not a well-known person then.”
Indeed, in the early 80s, it is unlikely anyone would have recognised the young Modi as a future Prime Minister. “Those days, he kept to himself. He was very discreet,” says Achille Forler.