Last week, Narendra Modi, a deeply polarizing Indian politician, led his party to a third consecutive election victory in the western state of Gujarat, which he has led for more than a decade. Though regional contests in the country are usually of little interest to outsiders, Modi's win is significant because it sets him up as a presumptive front-runner in the race to become India's next prime minister in elections scheduled for 2014 and casts a spotlight on his controversial rise to power.
Modi, who comes from a poor Hindu family and was a little-known political operative as recently as 15 years ago, has gained a surprisingly large national following. His core base of supporters is made up of right-wing Hindus who believe he will fight against the benefits and privileges they feel the country has historically lavished on its Muslim minority. But he has also found followers outside that group by focusing on economic growth and competent public administration - things that many Indian politicians, especially in the country's governing Indian National Congress Party, have perpetually treated as challenges that can be put off for another day.
To many in India's burgeoning middle class and its thriving business community, that is reason enough to back Modi, despite the fact that he could inflame sectarian divisions that have subsided somewhat in the last decade but remain unresolved. Through a technocratic approach to public services like electricity and roads, he has led an unprecedented decade of industrial and agricultural growth in Gujarat, an arid state whose people have long had to leave to make their fortunes abroad in places like Africa, Britain and the United States. Now, many businesses, including Ford and General Motors, are setting up factories there.
Ratan Tata, outgoing chairman of India's largest business group, Tata Sons, summed up the confidence many have in Modi in a TV interview a few years ago: "One really has a sense of faith in Mr. Modi, that if he says it will be done, it will be done." Even before the state election, a poll by Nielsen and India Today magazine found that a plurality of respondents, 21 percent, saw him as the best person to lead India, compared with just 10 percent who favored the second-most-popular candidate, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has led the country and the Congress Party for much of the last 65 years.
Modi's economic record has broad appeal because India's economic growth is slowing and the federal government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress Party has struggled unsuccessfully to revive it. The government has also been beset by a series of multibillion-dollar corruption scandals involving licensing of industries like mining and telecommunications, which has helped to make Modi seem like an acceptable option. But Modi's brand of politics is deeply disturbing. It harks back to the 1990s, when right-wing politicians stoked Hindu-Muslim violence to advance their own rise at the expense of human lives and the economy. Many of the firebrand leaders of that era, including L.K. Advani, have downplayed their sectarian agenda, but not Modi.
In 2002, soon after he took office as chief minister of Gujarat, he had a chance to show leadership and failed stunningly. After 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a train fire in Gujarat that was set by Muslims, mobs butchered nearly 1,000 people, most of them Muslims and among them many women and children. A top state official later told an investigating commission that Modi ordered officials not to stop the rioters.
Modi denies those allegations and an investigation commissioned by the Indian Supreme Court cleared him of wrongdoing. But courts have found one of his top aides and dozens of others guilty of various crimes, including murder and arson, committed during the riots. He has refused even to acknowledge that he did not do enough to bring the rioting and killing under control. In his victory speech on Thursday, he offered a vague apology for unspecified mistakes that fell far short of contrition: "There may have been a time when I hurt someone or when I made a mistake. I ask my 60 million Gujaratis to forgive me."
Still, his refusal to reckon with what happened in 2002 could well keep him from national office. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is unlikely to win an outright majority in the 2014 elections and will have to rely on support from other political parties. Already, some big parties allied with the BJP in the opposition in parliament have indicated that they will not support it if Modi is its candidate for prime minister in 2014. Most of these parties are based in states with large Muslim populations.
"Modi's politics is against the idea of India," said Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University and an India scholar. "The idea of India has a clear place for minorities as minorities, not minorities simply as individuals."
The Congress Party's inept and feckless management of the economy and the government benefits a politician like Modi. By blithely squandering the fast growth India enjoyed in recent years without improving education and other public services and reforming the financial system and labor market, the party has given him an opening to become a contender to lead the country.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service