GANDHINAGAR, India — His reputation as an administrator and economic manager is probably second to none in India. Following him on the campaign trail during 2007 state elections, it was apparent he was also unquestionably one of the country’s great orators, a demagogue who mixes humor and vitriol to devastating effect.
But Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is also a complex and divisive man, whose failure to prevent the deaths of between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims during riots in his state in 2002 still makes him a pariah for many Indians and foreign governments.
Last month, in a damning report issued a report to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the riots, Human Rights Watch accused Modi’s government of “subverting justice, protecting perpetrators and intimidating those promoting accountability.”
The newspaper the Hindu said that there remained a “political badge of dishonor that will ensure the higher office his supporters seek for him remains out of reach.”
This month, Modi agreed to talk to The Washington Post, but only on condition that the interview concentrate on his economic and development record, and that questions on the riots be limited in number.
He professed no remorse for the violence, but insisted he was promoting peace, harmony and unity throughout his state. He portrayed himself as a workaholic who was dedicated to Gujarat, and even allowed himself a rare laugh on occasion.
But penetrating the real Narendra Modi is far from easy.
In 2006, a U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks called him a “charming and likeable” man in public, but also damned him as “an insular and distrustful person” who “reigns more by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus.”
Gujarat allows little introspection about the 2002 riots, and critics of Modi are often portrayed as somehow disloyal to the state. Even his supporters admit the minister cannot cope with disagreement or dissent.
“There is no room for such things as a team,” said a member of parliament from Gujarat who has known Modi for three decades but asked for his name to be withheld while talking about a party colleague. The MP called him a visionary and statesman but admitted: “It is not easy to know this person completely. He doesn’t trust anybody.”
Nor do all of the leaders of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) trust or like him, something that many observers argue could be a major obstacle in the contest for his party’s leadership.
Nevertheless, some analysts argue that it is too easy to find reasons why Modi could not be prime minister, and that there are several reasons why he could make the leap.
Among them is Swapan Dasgupta, a conservative political commentator, who argues Modi is so popular among most “BJP-inclined voters” that he could probably overcome resistance from other members of the party leadership if he sets his mind to it.
Dasgupta says Modi might have a bigger problem winning over smaller, regional parties to join a potential BJP-led coalition government, especially from states with significant Muslim populations. Yet such is the impression of political drift in India now, the sense that politicians can no longer take tough decisions, that Modi cannot be written off.
“If this impression of drift in the country persists… if the clamor goes up that we need a purposeful leader who can take tough decisions, if that sort of mood builds up in the country, that is Modi’s biggest chance,” Dasgupta said.
Political commentator Ashok Malick believes 2014 is too soon for Modi, not least because the BJP will want the next election to be about the perceived failure of current Congress-led government than a referendum on Modi.
But if Gujarat’s chief minister can clear his name in the remaining court cases surrounding the riots, “perhaps express remorse and make a fresh start,” he could be a serious contender in the future, Malick says.
It is that, perhaps, which is Modi’s biggest problem. Is this extraordinarily single-minded man capable of remorse, of a fresh start, of truly walking the walk of Hindu-Muslim unity? Or is he forever damned by the events of 2002 and his alleged attempts to protect the perpetrators of the killings?
Those are the questions facing the man who many Indians would like to see revitalize their economy and breathe some life into the country’s political leadership. But for the moment, with another set of state elections looming later this year, Modi insists his sights are firmly set on Gujarat.
“My success is because I don’t look here and there, I look only in Gujarat,” he said. “I am totally focused on Gujarat, I am dedicated to Gujarat.”
Read Denyer’s full piece on the complex politician here.