AHMEDABAD, India — In the past 12 years, Narendra Modi has transformed his arid state into a model of what some believe India can become — a place of wide, smooth roads, electrified villages, rising incomes and brand-name foreign investment.
Now, with Modi poised to become India’s next prime minister, his supporters are hoping the politician can build on his successes in Gujarat and revive India’s stalled economy. The six-week election concluded Monday, and Friday’s early counting trends showed Modi and his opposition party coalition with a healthy lead.
On the stump, Modi promised a new India, with an efficient government free of corruption. He pledged to build bullet trains, hydroelectric power plants, manufacturing hubs and dozens of cities, enabling India to rival China, the economic powerhouse next door. A lover of technology, Modi even addressed several rallies as a holographic image.
But critics and supporters alike say the state leader dubbed “Development Man” may face challenges implementing his agenda nationwide.
In Gujarat, Modi has faced little opposition, with his Bharatiya Janata Party in power since 1995. He sidelined his rivals, limited news media access and tolerated little dissent, critics note. Such control will be harder to assert throughout India, with its powerful regional satraps, diverse cultures and noisy cable-news culture.
And, for all Modi’s economic success, critics say Gujarat has made little progress on social problems such as child malnutrition and maternal health. Meanwhile, his strident Hindu nationalism has left deep divisions between religious groups in the state of 60 million.
“It’s not going to be as easy for him as it has been in Gujarat,” said Hanif Lakdawala, a physician who works with the poor in one of the state’s biggest slums. “He is going to face a lot of difficulties if he becomes prime minister.”
A self-professed workaholic, Modi lives alone in a sprawling government-owned bungalow in the state capital of Gandhinagar. He typically rises about 5 a.m. and does yoga before beginning his workday, which usually lasts well into the evening.
“If he becomes prime minister, he is going to be great for India,” said Dinesh Patel, an electronics technician from the town of Anand. “He’s a self-made man who devotes a lot of time to his work. He doesn’t even live with his mother.”
Like Patel, many of Gujarat’s better-off Hindus support Modi because he has built roads and flyovers that ease traffic congestion and has launched beautification efforts and festivals that promote civic pride, according to Uday Mahurkar, a journalist and the author of a recent book on Modi.
“If India wants to get over its economic crisis and move forward, a big part of it is capitalizing on our own strengths,” such as the country's growing youth population and skilled tech force, Mahurkar said. “Modi would do that.”
Early in his first term, Modi created a program to provide reliable power to nearly all of Gujarat’s 18,000 villages, leveraging available supply by separating domestic and agriculture feeder lines and cracking down on power thieves. Jyotigram, as it is called, is one of his signal achievements, and electrifying India is likely to be among his domestic priorities. A third of the country is still not connected to the national power grid.
Sebastian Morris, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad who has studied the electricity program, said that the improved power supply led to profound change – with students able to study at night and small industries increasing their output. Demand for television sets and used refrigerators soared.
“The benefits were quite significant,” he said.
Modi said he made electrification a priority because of his experience studying by a kerosene lamp during his youth. He grew up as the son of a tea seller in a family of the lower Ghanchi caste.
As an adult, he volunteered for the country's hard-line Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose power brokers tapped him to become chief minister — similar to a governor — in Gujarat in October 2001. The next year, religious riots swept the state, claiming the lives of more than 1,000 people, many of them Muslims. Modi was accused of not doing enough to quell the bloodshed. While a review panel appointed by the supreme court found that there was not enough evidence to charge Modi with a crime, the legacy of the riots has haunted him.
In a bid to remake his image, he turned his attention to development. His efforts resulted in 10 percent average economic growth for his state between 2004 and 2012, although the rate has dipped since then.
Along the way, he became enamored with China — traveling there in 2007 and again in 2011, when he presented leaders with business cards printed in Mandarin.
“China has been a large resource of inspiration for him,” said Sunil Parekh, a consultant who has worked with Modi on biannual business summits. Modi was especially influenced by that country’s large-scale infrastructure projects, Parekh said.
On the campaign trail, Modi has outlined plans to build roads, airports, ports, bullet trains and 100 modern cities if he becomes India’s leader. But sometimes, in his rush to develop, Modi has failed to consider market forces and other practical issues.
In 2007, he proposed building the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, or GIFT City, which he hoped would one day rival Singapore or London’s financial district. The scale model glows with more than 100 buildings, residences, shopping malls and a man-made lake. Yet only two of the planned buildings — 30-story towers that sprout from the sun-baked millet fields — have been constructed.
R.K. Jha, the managing director of GIFT, said it was normal for new projects to take time. “Initially, anything you develop will be slow.”
Morris said the project was overly ambitious.
“If anybody knows anything about financial centers, they don’t just happen wherever you provide infrastructure,” he said. “If any city is going to be a global financial center, it is Mumbai, because it’s already there, and that’s where the skills are.”
Critics have said that wide-ranging development in Gujarat under Modi has put pressure on the environment, unfairly displaced farmers and fishermen and done little to address the state’s lingering social problems. A 2013 report from UNICEF found that while the state had tried to improve education and access to clean drinking water, nearly every second child under 5 was still malnourished, and its infant and child mortality rates had declined slowly over the previous decade.
“He’s only for big buildings, big industry,” said Sartanbhai Bharwad, 50, a farmer who lost the ability to farm and graze his animals on land cleared for a Maruti Suzuki auto manufacturing plant. A court case is pending over the disputed property, which Bharwad said his tribe owns. “Poor people, people like us, don’t fit anywhere in his scheme of things.”
The state’s Muslims, too, feel that they have been left behind as the state has grown more prosperous. The tension and hostility unleashed by the 2002 riots have made it more difficult for Muslims to purchase property in Hindu-dominated areas in Gujarat. So the state’s largest Muslim neighborhood, Juhapura, in Ahmedabad, has swelled to 400,000 people, ranging from millionaires to impoverished slum-dwellers.
One recent evening, the shortcomings and successes of Modi’s Gujarat were on full display. In one makeshift camp in Ahmedabad, families lingered in the heat outside shacks. They had been displaced when slums along the river were torn down to make way for one of Modi’s crowning achievements, a downtown river walk.
The state paid for thousands of new homes for people forced to leave the slums, but some families either lacked the documents to qualify or were waiting for word on whether they could move into new dwellings.
“They demolished our houses,” said Shahnawaz Malek, 13, as he played marbles. “We can’t go back there.”
Across town, as the sun went down, a speedboat cut a wake through the river. The sound of temple bells echoed along with the Muslim call to prayer. Middle-class families mingled next to the lotus pond in Riverfront Park. Some Hindus had picnic suppers, and Muslims unrolled prayer mats.
For a Development Man who has promised to govern all India, it was the perfect tableau.
“We don’t want to remember the past, old things. We think all people are equal,” said Nafisa Rangwala, a homemaker. “For the goodness of everybody, let’s go forward.”
Jalees Andrabi in New Delhi and Mahesh Langa in Ahmedabad contributed to this report.