“The country needs a dynamic, growth-oriented, decisive leader, but Modi also carries a stigma,” said Nama Nageswara Rao, a lawmaker with the Telugu Desam Party in southern India. “His silence on the issue of riots does not inspire confidence.”
Widespread doubts aside, Modi has begun to construct a national image for himself.
He rarely speaks publicly in the Gujarati language, choosing Hindi for larger audiences. He has stopped mentioning Gujarat’s 60 million population in every speech, focusing instead on the aspirations of India’s 1.2 billion people. He compares the brimming surplus in his state’s coffers with India’s bloating fiscal deficit.
In his stump speeches, Modi attacks Singh’s government for excessive “dole distribution” and accuses the prime minister of drowning the economy, which he says has led the world to “put a question mark on India.” He calls the ruling Congress party a termite eating away at the nation.
But when it comes to the 2002 riots, Modi is silent. Media interviews are granted on the condition that no riot-related questions are asked. Other times, Modi, who has never been convicted of a crime in connection with the killings, directs reporters to read the court records.
When asked about his desire to be prime minister, he ducks.
“I have a mantra in my life that I share with others: ‘Don’t dream of becoming, dream of doing something,’ ” Modi said at a recent event.
An avid blogger and tweeter, Modi has forced opponents in the Congress party to take to social media. When he boasts of his achievements in Gujarat, Congress party supporters tweet a steady stream of statistics to punch holes in his rhetoric.
But the Congress party has yet to launch a campaign against him.
“We have decided to leave him to the tender mercies of his party colleagues in the BJP,” a Congress lawmaker said.
Analysts said Modi would drive the votes of religious minorities back to the Congress fold, though he might cost the party some urban middle-class voters.
Several European nations that shunned Modi after the riots have recently resumed meetings with him. But he has struggled to gain acceptance in the United States, which has not granted him a visa because of concerns about his role in the 2002 violence.
A recent invitation to Modi to address students of the Wharton School’s India Economic Forum via Skype sparked controversy when U.S. human rights activists and professors mounted an online campaign asserting “incalculable and continuing harm done by Modi’s brand of politics to the secular values enshrined in India’s constitution.” The invitation was rescinded.
In 2002, Modi told the Gujarat legislative assembly that the “riots are a stigma on humanity and do not help anyone to hold his head high.”
His critics say that is not enough.
In an opinion piece published last week, economist and columnist Mihir Sharma wrote that many Indians are hoping that Modi will express regret “so they can vote for him with a clean conscience.”