If Indians were to vote against corruption, a slowing economy and weak leadership in national elections next year — all that the urban middle class is roiled by — controversial Hindu nationalist politician Narendra Modi would win the office of prime minister hands down.
He has won three back-to-back elections as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, delivered impressive economic growth, boosted jobs and runs what is considered a squeaky-clean administration in a country where bribe-taking is a byword for power.
But Modi’s political journey from Gujarat to New Delhi faces hurdles from within his Bharatiya Janata Party and from its allies.
For the party, the quandary couldn’t be deeper — Modi is its most popular, vote-getting face, but his image is hardly coalition-friendly. The stigma of his alleged complicity in riots that left hundreds of Muslims dead in Gujarat 11 years ago could frighten away smaller parties that are key to stitching a national coalition government. Many Indians vote along caste, religious and regional lines but ignore corruption, giving small regional parties powerful leverage.
“If the BJP projects him, we will leave the coalition in no time,” said Sabir Ali, spokesman for the Janata Dal (United) party, a tiny but important ally that governs the eastern state of Bihar. “The prevailing sentiment is that Modi is a killer of Muslims.”
Even so, since his third election victory in Gujarat in December, the clamor for Modi has grown among the BJP’s rank and file. Indian media have joined in, steadily recasting the man once deemed the “Hero of Hate” as the “Modernizer.”
But the BJP leadership appears hesitant in putting him forward as the party’s candidate for prime minister . In the absence of official party rallies, Modi, apparently unwilling to wait for a green light, has begun an independent speaking tour of sorts.
The groundswell of support for Modi was evident this month at a party meeting in New Delhi. Every time his name was mentioned, thousands of party members roared and cheered. Even as the BJP tried to showcase the achievements of other prominent figures, it was clear who the party members wanted, one senior member said.
“A pan-India momentum is building around Modi. It would be unfair and churlish not to recognize that,” said political commentator Ashok Malik, referring to Modi’s popularity among the urban middle class. “Even those who are not in his favor in the party grudgingly accept that Modi is the best card they can play.”
Malik said polls showing rising ratings for Modi reflect Indians’ disappointment with the rule of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a reticent economist who has failed to check runaway corruption, spiraling inflation and plummeting economic growth.
“There is a sense of helplessness among Indians today — corruption, economy, leadership vacuum,” said BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman. “Modi is able to effectively touch this nerve and ask, ‘Can India afford to feel this helpless?’ ”
The BJP led a coalition government from 1999 to 2004, when it lost power amid waning support from the poorer classes, which had previously backed the party.
“We must demonstrate once again that we are a winnable party, and Modi can take us closer to that goal than any other leader today,” said a party member who was not authorized to speak publicly on internal matters.
But even members of allied parties who admire Modi’s rule in Gujarat worry that he will cost them votes among Muslims.
“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.”