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In today’s market driven world, instances when an international investment bank lifts its views on stocks and upgrades the credit rating of any country, should be cause for cheer in government circles. This was not the case in early November when Goldman Sachs upped India’s rating from ‘underweight’ to ‘marketweight’. The cause for gloom that set in within the Indian government and the ruling coalition – led by the Congress Party, is that the upgrading is not on account of policy initiatives or improved economic performance but because of the assessment that its principal political adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party “could prevail” and return to power in the parliamentary elections due in 2014. What made matters worse for the Congress party is that the Goldman Sachs report was playfully titled after the man who is leading the BJP’s charge – its prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi. For the record, the report is titled “Modi-fying our view: Raise India to Marketweight”.Who is this man now being seen as a serious challenger to the Congress party, in power for more than five and half decades since India became independent 66 years ago? How is it that the man infamously denied a diplomatic visa and whose tourist visa was cancelled in March 2005 by the United States for “severe violations of religious freedom”, now has foreign missions, global market giants and Indian corporate leaders tripping over each other while lining up for a meeting with the privately reticent chief minister? What makes this spectacle more enigmatic is that Modi does not lead a large Indian state but one that is home to slightly more than 60 million people – a small fraction of India’s teeming population – and elects less than five per cent of the nation’s parliamentarians.
It is extremely rare that one will come across Modi’s name without a prefix. ‘Extreme Hindu nationalist’; the ‘great polarizer’ and ‘master divider’ are just some samples of such labels which delineate Modi from the rest of India’s leaders. Modi even outruns colleagues within his own political fraternity when it comes to acquiring tags that describe him as a sectarian political leader – someone who has consciously divided India on religious lines in an attempt to gain the support of the majority Hindu who account for more than 80 percent of Indians.
This however is not a new trait to Modi. His political grooming, in the early 1970s when he was just a gangling youngster just past his twentieth year, was in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), accused in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and banned for several months in 1948. The RSS is the fountainhead of right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology and organizations that spawned in India from the 1950s. In electoral politics, its face is the BJP and there are affiliated organizations in every sphere of public life from trade unions and employees federations to consumer rights groups and teachers’ bodies. Modi cut his teeth in the organization and till 1987 – when he was deputed to the BJP – picked up lessons in managing huge networks or cadre across cities and regions.At the point of this organizational transition, Modi was driven both by ideological commitment and a huge personal ambition. He made it amply clear to associates when not even 30 that acquiring political power was his aim. In doing so, Modi has consistently ridden roughshod over colleagues and one-time friends.
Despite such ambitions, Modi would have remained just a footnote in history had it not been for a train compartment being burnt down resulting in 59 political activists owing allegiance to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an associate of the BJP, being roasted alive. This horrifying incident on February 27, 2002 occurred when Hindu members were returning to their homes in the western Indian state of Gujarat after participating in an agitation in Ayodhya, the temple town where a mosque was demolished in 1992 causing much rioting strife in India. Modi at that time was a struggling chief minister, charged by his party of winning back the state in state election due in less than year. In a flash, Modi realised that he had been gifted the perfect tool and used it to his benefit.
Retaliatory strikes against Muslims followed the attack on the train in Godhra town and large parts of Gujarat were affected. Officially it was declared that almost a 1000 people died though unofficial estimates peg the deceased at twice that number. More importantly, the events in March 2002 saw a near complete breakdown of social ties in Gujarat between Hindus and Muslims, comprising ten percent of the state’s population. Over the past decade this had a spill-over effect in large parts of India and prejudice against religious minorities now runs deeper than before. This has greatly benefited Modi who in December 2012 won state elections in Gujarat for the third consecutive time. The electoral gains made by Modi are also evident in several surveys conducted since 2011 which have seen his popularity rating soar.
But Modi is no modern day avatar of Adolf Hitler though hardened detractors liken him to a ‘mass murderer’. After the initial enthusiasm on acquiring an emotive issue, Modi settled into projecting himself as a good administrator who could win friends in business and draw investments into the state. In an astutely devised strategy, Modi did not abandon his tough pro-Hindu stance but embellished this with a persona of a ‘doer’ from the middle of the last decade – the time from when governance in India witnessed a sharp fall in quality. This was coupled with aggressive image building and selective presentation of facts and figures showing Gujarat’s emergence as an economically vibrant state under Modi.
In the course of eleven years since Modi has constantly remained under public scrutiny, some obvious negative attributes have surfaced. The most damaging of these is the charge that Modi is autocratic in his work style and cannot work with a team. This, it is argued would be his biggest undoing, because India has been governed by coalitions since 1996 and there is no end to this phase in sight. India witnesses the spectacle of strong regional leaders capable of electing a score or more of parliamentarians each and thereby emerge as potential stakeholders in any coalition. All leaders run state level parties autocratically and will naturally clash with Modi if he is at the helm of a coalition as prime minister.
But the biggest question is over Modi’s social acceptance. Will India’s Muslims even accept Modi as their leader and vote for him or will their antipathy further drive Hindus into Modi’s folds and thereby widen cleavages on religious lines? Linked to this question is another: will Modi ever apologise for the failure of his government to protect Muslims in 2002? So far, he has given no indication that he will go that extra mile. But, the astute political leader that Modi is, there is no knowing if he will eventually make a token gesture or statement in the hope of increasing his acceptability – nationally and internationally. Political power is Modi’s real aim, not transformation of India into something else.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a senior Indian journalist and writer. He is author of the book, Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He is regular political commentator in Indian dailies like Economic Times, Hindustan Times and The Telegraph.