In Tense Indian State, A Man for All Hindus

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 23, 2007

AHMADABAD, India -- Past the leafy Hindu neighborhoods of high-rises, children's amusement parks and glitzy shopping malls sprawls one of Asia's largest Muslim ghettos. It's a maze of half a million people, with rutted, unpaved roads, barefoot children flying kites amid smoldering garbage, and an increasing sense of unease.

That's because the man who has been accused of tacitly supporting the 2002 riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat -- riots that left more than 1,000 Muslims dead -- is widely predicted to emerge the winner in local elections Sunday. If he does, Narendra Modi would hold on to his post as chief minister of the subcontinent's most prosperous state.

Modi hails from the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the race is being closely watched as a test of the party's Hindu nationalist ideology at a time when India's importance on the global stage is growing. It is also being watched as an indicator of the BJP's strength before general elections scheduled for May 2009.

"If Modi wins again in Gujarat, it puts a dent in India's commitment to diversity," said Shiv Visvanathan, a professor and analyst who tracks the chief minister. "It further polarizes society. India has the world's second-largest Muslim population, and it will send shivers when he wins. Modi's never even apologized to the Muslims for riots. A lot of people admire that, and he embodies Hindu pride."

To his critics, Modi is a dangerous leader who stood idle during weeks of mob violence, known as "Gujarat's pogroms" in the Muslim community. He was censured by India's Supreme Court as "a modern Nero" and denied a visa by the United States for "severe violations of religious freedom."

But to his admirers, Modi is a Hindu hero of machismo, especially for the middle class. He's religious, business-friendly, socially conservative, outspoken against affirmative action for Muslims and other minority groups, and tech-savvy. Supporters post footage of his speeches on YouTube.

Almost six years after the worst outbreak of sectarian violence here since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Muslims remain angry and aggrieved about the riots. The violence erupted after 59 Hindus were burned to death on a train as they returned home from a pilgrimage site. At the time, Muslim extremists were blamed for the fire. But the cause of the blaze remains in dispute, and one government panel has said it was an accident.

In crumbling row-style housing, those whose homes were burned in 2002 scratch out an existence in slums called "rehabilitation camps," where flags mark what are known as the "borders" between Muslim and Hindu neighborhoods. Muslims in these fetid camps say they expect two things on Sunday: that Modi will win and that justice will remain a rumor.

Of Gujarat's 50 million people, about 9 percent are Muslims.

"I feel like a caged animal on display," said Mohamed Salim, a former rickshaw puller who witnessed the mobs killing his friends and neighbors in 2002. "The politicians, the human rights activists and the government all come to look, and nothing ever changes. There is no justice for Muslims in India, especially now. And no hope for the future."

Modi was once a young member of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, or RSS, a member of which killed Mohandas K. Gandhi. After the riots, Modi won a landslide victory in 2002, tapping into long-festering tensions between Muslims and Hindus, human rights experts said.

Now, in the boomtowns of Gujarat, Modi speaks only about development, rarely mentioning the religious tensions that once got him elected. India Today magazine called this change the "most significant total transformation of a political leader in Indian politics."

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