Opinion: Narendra Modi is not the ogre he’s been made out to be

Published: May 13, 2014

India’s opposition leader could yet unite Hindus, Muslims and anti-corruption campaigners

DEAN NELSON
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

Until February this year, Narendra Modi, the leader of India’s main opposition party, was an international pariah. As chief minister in the state of Gujarat, he was accused of being complicit in – or at the very least, untroubled by – the massacre of more than 700 people in 2002, when rioting Hindu mobs laid siege to Muslim neighbourhoods, raping women, looting homes and hacking to death or burning alive many of the residents.

Godhra Riots-development

Gujarat state Chief Minister and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) Primeministerial Candidate, Narendra Modi smiles during a meeting in Gandhinagar. SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images

Yet on Friday, if exit polls are correct, Mr Modi will win a sweeping victory in the largest election in history, becoming prime minister of the world’s biggest democracy. It is a prospect that has struck terror through the ruling Congress Party, and the Indian establishment more generally.

The fear is that Mr Modi’s aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism will provoke new anti-Muslim riots. That it will foment disputes between the higher-caste groups that support his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the less privileged – not least the Dalits, the so-called “untouchables” who do all the dirtiest jobs. And that it will stoke new clashes with Pakistan, and see India turn away from trade and foreign investment to pursue an isolationist path.

Given this spectre, it is no wonder that Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, her son and heir Rahul and his sister Priyanka, has run a campaign focused almost exclusively on “stopping Modi”. They are entirely bent on convincing voters of the threat he poses to Nehru’s secular vision of the Indian state, rather than persuading them that Congress’s 10 years of government have been good for them.

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Yet there is another take on the Modi phenomenon, one voters are finding rather more convincing. Where his enemies see a xenophobic rabble-rouser, they see a presidential-style candidate who promises new dynamism instead of “policy paralysis”. The BJP campaign has highlighted not just Mr Modi’s anti-corruption platform, but his boundless energy: over the course of six weeks, he has covered more than 200,000 air miles, addressed just under 500 rallies and “appeared” at another 800 as a live hologram.

In his speeches, he highlighted his personal story: the childhood job helping his father as a tea boy on trains, a low-caste origin in striking contrast with the pampered privilege of the Gandhi dynasty. It has connected with the strong – but usually thwarted – desire for greater opportunity among India’s lower castes.

And even as Sonia Gandhi was urging Muslim leaders to “Stop Modi”, some of them were voicing their resentment at an attempt to terrorise them into voting for a Congress Party that has not fulfilled its promises. Muslim supporters of Mr Modi point out that he was recently cleared of involvement in the Gujarat riots by a court-appointed investigation, and that while concerns linger, the state has seen less sectarian violence since 2002 than elsewhere. One adds that while many thousands have died in such disturbances across India, Gujarat is the first state where the perpetrators are gradually being brought to justice – in contrast with the alleged involvement of Congress figures in the riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, when more than 8,000 Sikhs were massacred.

For the veteran newspaper editor M J Akbar, a high-profile Muslim and a former press secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, the most urgent need is for economic leadership – and Mr Modi is the man to provide it. India needs to create 20 million new jobs a year to employ its growing young population, which means its economy must grow at a minimum of nine per cent. It is currently below six per cent, thanks in part to corruption and weak government.

On the national stage, Mr Modi will be constrained by the coalition partners he will need to rule. Indeed, it is not guaranteed that he will be able to form a government: exit polls have a questionable record in India, and if his BJP does worse than expected in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, another figure might prove acceptable to potential coalition partners. A “third front” of regional and caste-based parties could cobble together a government, with Congress support.

But while the verdict of voters will be delivered on Friday, Mr Modi has already won over the toughest constituency – across the border in Pakistan. Earlier this month, diplomats there told The Telegraph that they were not concerned about the 2002 riots, and hope he will offer the leadership necessary for the old enemies to make progress in peace talks. It is just possible, in other words, that a man who can unite senior Muslims, Hindu fundamentalists, Pakistani diplomats, anti-corruption campaigners and low-caste leaders behind his campaign might not be the bogeyman of Congress’s nightmares, but the strong leader India so desperately needs.

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