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Narendra Modi: A Study in Polarization | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, addresses his supporters during a campaign rally at Balasore, 124 miles (200 kilometers) from the eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar, on April 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, addresses his supporters during a campaign rally at Balasore, 124 miles (200 kilometers) from the eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar, on April 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, addresses his supporters during a campaign rally at Balasore, 124 miles (200 kilometers) from the eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar, on April 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

Mumbai, Asharq Al-Awsat—As India’s 800-million-plus voters began the six-week process of electing the country’s next government on Monday, one name was on the lips of every journalist, diplomat and political analyst: Narendra Damodardas Modi.

A radical with an imperious personal manner, Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks set to ride a wave of discontent with India’s ruling Congress Party into power as part of the broader National Democratic Alliance (NDA), if the opinion polls are to be believed.

The 63-year-old politician is currently serving his fourth consecutive term as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. Modi, who is seen as a no-nonsense administrator and an astute decision maker, has a development and governance record that speaks for itself. A technology enthusiast, he has used the power of e-governance to radically change the way administration functions in his state. However, thanks to a series of tragic events just over a decade ago, Modi is also seen as perhaps the most polarizing leader in today’s India.

Modi’s claim to infamy

At the beginning of his career as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, Modi is alleged to have condoned, or even abetted, an orchestrated campaign of violence that killed hundreds of Muslims—men, women and children. Scores of Muslim women were raped, Muslim properties plundered, and several thousand were left homeless.

The killing is widely seen as having been a reaction to another deadly outbreak of violence earlier the same year, when 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from the controversial shrine at Ayodhya were burned alive when the train they were travelling on was set on fire at Godhra, also in Gujarat, on February 27. Although the first incident sent shockwaves around the country, what followed is alleged to have been a pre-meditated act of revenge.

Modi’s alleged complicity in the act—that of sanctioning the violence unleashed against Muslims—remains unproven, yet is widely perceived to be true. An ambivalent BJP-led NDA government in New Delhi, led at the time by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, extended him a lifeline, and Modi was able to shrug off the impact of the crisis on his political career.

When the clamor for his resignation grew, Modi quit. He rallied Hindu votes in the state elections called soon after. In the campaign, the Gujarat carnage was presented as a punishing response by nationalist Hindus to the Muslim menace. It got Modi the votes he needed to get back into office.

But the BJP paid the price in subsequent national elections. Despite its much-touted “India Shining” campaign, the NDA government was defeated in the next round of national elections in 2004. In a subsequent interview, Vajpayee blamed the BJP’s defeat on having shielded Modi during the Gujarat riots.

Radical Hindu, crafty politician, able administrator

Back in power in Gujarat, Modi shifted gears to focus on the economic development of the state. With an astounding majority in the state legislative assembly, securing 127 of the 182 seats, Modi had the much-needed leverage to push forward his program of reforms.

After 2002, Modi the crafty politician and able administrator arrived, sending out a clear signal that he would brook no interference in his administration. As a politician, his first move was to secure his rear flank by stifling dissent within his own party. He began clipping the wings of sister organizations such as the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), which function as pressure groups, the former for farmers and the latter for Hindu religionists—both of which could confront his reformist agenda. Old friends like Dr. Pravin Togadia, leader of the VHP, who had stood by him during his worst days, were no longer welcome at the chief minister’s office. Togadia’s right-hand man, Gordhan Zadaphia, who was installed as a home minister during Modi’s first term in office, was conspicuously dropped during his second term. Another aide close to Dr Togadia, Ashwin Patel, was charged with sedition for allegedly sending text messages that challenged Modi’s Hindutva (right-wing Hindu nationalist) credentials.

Drifting away from the core Hindutva philosophy did not mean Modi was attempting to build bridges with the Muslim population of his state. Instead, he continued to issue bitter polemics. As chief minister, he refused to open relief camps for riot victims, saying they would become “child-making factories”—alluding to the polygamy and high birth rates prevalent among Muslims in the country.

With the state firmly under control, Modi set out on a development agenda and continued to insist he was blameless for the events of 2002. Despite criticism and censure from secularists, human rights bodies, opposition parties, the judiciary, corporate bodies, international agencies and the media—both in India and abroad—Modi plowed ahead with his agenda of economic reforms and sought to cultivate “Gujarati pride.” He was successful: so much so that the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was forced in March 2003 to tender an “unconditional apology” to Modi after major industrial houses from Gujarat, at Modi’s behest, created the “Resurgent Group of Gujarat,” criticized the CII’s attempts to “malign the State,” and threatened to surrender their membership of the CII.

Pro-capitalist chief minister

Modi pursued a range of reforms, implementing market-oriented policies, infrastructure development projects, and agricultural sector development, as well as opening the up the state to investment. Supplemented by the enterprising nature of Gujaratis, his programs began to show results on the ground. As investments began to trickle in, the world sat up and took notice.

The biggest coup for Modi came during his third tenure as chief minister. Faced with opposition from locals, Tata Motors shifted their “Nano” car project—with an investment of 2,000 crore rupees—from Singur in West Bengal to Sanand, near Ahmedabad in Gujarat, in October 2008. At a press conference held to announce the move, the then Tata group chairman, Ratan Tata, praised Modi for the speedy allocation of land for the project. Even as several states vied for the project, the Tatas’ decision to choose Gujarat was seen as yet more evidence of the success of Modi’s market-driven economic policy.

However, being pro-capitalist is not by itself a big vote-winner. Modi’s success lies in his ability to make reforms work for ordinary people of his state. As New Delhi-based political analyst Ashok Malik, writing in the Hindustan Times, said, the difference is in the “honesty of purpose” and “the language in which this phenomenon is packaged.”

“Rather than talking of strengthening the market system, Modi talks of empowering civil society, entrepreneurship and the citizen . . . Rather than front-ending industrialisation, he talks of job creation, development of soft skills [to make young Gujaratis more employable in emerging sectors of the economy] and using technology to help the farmer,” Malik wrote.

For a country that has been left “rudderless” (to borrow a term from the Economist) by a decade-long rule by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the debate on the benefits of secularism versus good governance is no longer fashionable. Having tasted the boons of economic liberalization and globalization, the fear of sectarian polarization is seen as a small price to pay to ensure strong-willed administration and steadfast growth.

In Gujarat, Modi has also ensured a level of technocratic competence. Writing about Modi, political commentator and author Aditi Phadnis says that there is “sufficient anecdotal evidence pointing to the fact that corruption had gone down significantly in the state.”

Arrival on the national stage

As the BJP went into the national elections in 2009 under the leadership of party patriarch and original poster boy of Hindutva, L. K. Advani, there was a distinct air of resentment against Modi’s brand of governance: it was seen as seeking to undermine the preponderance of the party. But displacing a three-time chief minister who was doing incredibly well was something the BJP could hardly afford to do. Ironically, dashing expectations, the BJP-led NDA lost the elections and the Congress-led UPA gained a second consecutive term in office.

Soon after the elections, the influence of Advani receded and the BJP began its search for a new leader, one who could bring a new lease of life to the party. With an astounding victory in the 2007 state election in Gujarat, Modi looked like the ideal candidate.

The clamor for him to be made the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was already beginning to be heard from within the party in Gujarat. With Modi leading the BJP to a fourth consecutive tenure in office in the Gujarat state elections in 2012, that clamor grew louder.

Finally, in September 2013, brushing aside intense opposition from within the party, Modi was anointed the prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections that are now underway.

By declaring Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, the BJP has no doubt invigorated its party cadre. But for Modi personally, his candidacy is a gamble. Driven by his pro-development agenda, the party has made winning more than 272 seats its mission for the elections. Achieving that target will make Modi the undisputed leader of the BJP. However, if he falls way short of that mark, Modi’s position could become untenable—not only at the national level, but also in Gujarat.

Polarizing leader

But with opinion polls predicting a complete rout of the Congress-led UPA, and Modi as the most popular candidate for the post prime minister, does he have any grounds to fear for the future of his career?

As Malik writes, Modi’s campaign to become prime minister is bound to lead to “a certain degree of Muslim consolidation against him.” Such consolidation could prove to be detrimental to the NDA considering that, in the face of a perceived threat, Indian Muslims have in the past shown a tendency towards voting en masse.

Throughout his time on the campaign trail, Modi has sought to downplay his hardline Hindu nationalist persona, speaking only about development and good governance. But as Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Modi’s biographer, notes in India’s Economic Times newspaper: “After a relatively sober couple of months beginning in January 2014, Modi has returned to using provocative language with a vengeance.”

Mukhopadhyay feels that, notwithstanding what opinion polls indicate, when “Mr Modi feels uncertain about the outcome of any poll, he has always gone all out to polarize voters on the basis of religious identity.”

It is Modi’s willingness to play this card that led to a hard-hitting editorial in the Economist which concluded that the paper “cannot bring itself to back Modi for India’s highest office.” The news magazine, which usually wholeheartedly backs pro-business candidates, reasoned: “By refusing to put Muslim fears to rest, Modi feeds them. By clinging to the anti-Muslim vote, he nurtures it.”

Hindu–Muslim animosity led to the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Since then, radical politicians on both sides have used it as a tool for polarization. Despite his pro-development image, Modi is among the several leaders occupying one end of that spectrum.

What has held the nation together amid this cacophony is a distorted yet uniquely Indian notion of secularism. Often seen by critics as a camouflage for the appeasement of a Muslim minority, secularism may no longer be fashionable in today’s development-centered discourse. But with Modi at the helm in New Delhi, even that notional idea of secularism could soon change, driving a wedge into the way India looks at minority rights.