Prime ministerial candidates haven't yet been announced for India's general elections next year, but already the smart money is backing Narendra Modi to win. What's the secret behind the meteoric rise of the right-wing BJP's dark horse and why can't he get a visa into the USA? Will Modi's glimmering promise of prosperity blind Indian voters to his authoritarianism and his party's Islamophobic nationalism?
On Sunday, the the Bhartiya Janata Party's announced that Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the Western state of Gujarat will lead its election campaign next spring. Though this doesn't necessarily mean Modi himself will be run for PM, it does make it extremely difficult for his rivals from within the party to challenge him for the role. BJP spokes person glowingly announced Modi's election:
"Today the whole country is in a festive mood because if we are working under the guidance of this undisputed leader; then for sure we would be felicitated by the winner's garland."
Narendra Modi is a leader whose personal story resonates with the entrepreneurialism of modern India. Modi came from humble beginnings: a grocer's son who worked his way up party ranks, Modi represents the drive, determination and hard work that has turned India into an emerging economic giant. In that respect, Modi is a far better role model to Indians than the main opposition party's poster-boy, Rahul Gandhi who has been primed for power by a political dynasty. Though lacking the privileged private-schooling and grooming, Modi's keen financial instinct, and self-taught but perfect English are seen by the nation's growing intelligentsia as signs of the leader's perseverance to educate himself.
Whilst the armchair socialists of the rival Congress party leaders seem elitist and disconnected, Modi has shown his media-savvy by maintaining a strong link with his supporters through a wide presence on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. A professional, well-trained team does his bidding across these platforms by dispersing cheesy but memorable soundbytes. He even has Bollywood legend, Amitabh Bachchan, who has achieved quasi-divine status in India doing tourism adverts for Gujarat and congratulating him for his victories on television. One thing is clear, Modi is sparing no expense on his team of spin-doctors and PR experts who are managing his political profile.
A supporter mocks opposition party leader Sonia Gandhi who reportedly told her son, Rahul Gandhi 'Power is poison.'
Within the last ten years, in the midst of a global recession, Modi's state of Gujarat has continued to pull in business and infrastructural investment. Supporters attribute the state's economic success to Modi's strong support of growth initiatives and his no-nonsense, efficient deal-making. With a Thatcherite resolve for smaller government and increased privatisation, Narendra Modi's tenure has witnessed unprecedented growth in Gujarat's industries coupled with landslide victories for his party. Modi's drive for big business and small government have made him extremely popular amongst the nation's burgeoning middle class. It is unsurprising then, that the BJP has chosen to extend Modi's allure on the national stage.
However, though Modi is strong-minded and growth-driven, his authoritarian leadership style, and the disenfranchisement of the Muslim minority worries his opponents. The biggest stain on his reputation is that of ruthless sectarian violence which claimed the lives of over 1000 Gujarati Muslims in 2002, supported by ministerial members of his party. A mob of 15,000 right-wing Hindus massacred Indian Muslims at Godhra train station, apparently instigated by party ministers. A decade later, justice for these atrocities has still not been served: more than 100 individuals have been acquitted for lack of evidence, and the state police have closed many cases because of an apparent lack of available witnesses.
Mayaben Kodnani, the former Minister for Women and Child Welfare received a 28-year sentence in prison for her role in the violence, but many from the Muslim community believe she was scapegoated. Modi himself was linked with the violence (though subsequent investigations found no substantial evidence of his direct involvement), and blamed for inaction in the face of the crisis. India's largest minority are still waiting for a long overdue apology from the Chief Minister for the 2002 riots. As a result of the 2002 Godhra riots, the USA still refuses Modi a visa by reccomendation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). On the other hand, many Muslims claim that the Godhra riots have been forgotten if not forgiven, and the new era of prosperity brought forth as a direct result of Modi's economic policies have transformed their lives sufficiently to make them think twice before dismissing the right-wing leader as a suitable prime ministerial candidate.
Opponents continue to paint Modi as a repressive leader who has puppeteered his state government to remain loyal to him. Political rivals have been edged out and factions have not been tolerated. Despite Gujarat's economic growth, it lags behind on the human development index. Muslim workers continue to face marginalisation as Hindu nationalism continues to exclude the largest minority from various aspects of public life. Working class organisation has been dismantled and Gujarat's trade union movement has been swept under magic carpet of economic growth.
Despite his sinister side, in the absence of any candidate as seemingly strong and inspiring as Modi from opposition parties, Modi's election to the role of Prime Minister seems only imminent. In the current climate, it seems that India is less concerned with the petty differences between India's equally corrupt and sluggish left-wing or right-wing, and wants a candidate who can deliver growth and end corruption. If Modi is elected the nation's Prime Minister, he will have a rare opportunity for retribution and must make an effort to transform bigoted Hindu nationalism into a more secular national pride and make ammends with the Muslim community for the atrocities his party was at least in part responsible for in 2002.