GANDHINAGAR, India — He is widely touted as a possible future prime minister of India, but he is a pariah in much of the Western world. Some in India call him a role model, their country’s most competent leader. Others accuse him of being complicit in the mass murder of Muslims.
Narendra Modi is probably India’s most complex and divisive figure, a man whose rise could kick-start the economy but whose Hindu nationalist leanings would polarize the country along religious lines and potentially, critics say, undermine the long-cherished secular identity of the world’s largest democracy and a key American strategic ally.
The chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Modi is fawned over by business leaders for the way he has rooted out corruption and promoted economic and industrial growth. His fast-growing state has attracted investment from all over India as well as from American companies such as Ford and General Motors.
Yet he has been denied a visa to visit the United States over allegations that he failed to prevent Hindu mobs from massacring between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims during riots in his state in 2002 or that he even actively encouraged the slaughter.
His prominence represents a yearning among certain sections of the middle classes for a strong, decisive leader, a desire to emulate China’s economic successes and impatience, too, with liberal ideas of human rights and social justice.
Ron Somers, the head of the U.S.-India Business Council, said Modi has “created a magnet for investment.” A Congressional Research Service report lauded Gujarat as “perhaps India’s best example of effective governance and impressive development.”
Gujarat has long been an entrepreneurial, business-friendly state, but Modi has helped unleash its potential since he took over in late 2001, with the state’s economy growing by more than 10 percent since then, compared with a national average of under eight.
“We make a very simple promise to all who wish to invest in Gujarat,” said Modi, a key figure in India’s main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in a rare interview last month. “We promise an atmosphere of clean, proactive and responsive government. We promise an environment that minimizes red tape-ism and encourages business.”
The BJP was largely pro-business and pro-America while ruling India as head of a coalition government from 1998 to 2004, but its strident assertion of what it sees as India’s essentially Hindu character alienates many people in this diverse nation of 1.2 billion people.
A man with few close friends, Modi sleeps just 31 / 2 hours a night, admits to being a “workaholic,” says he has no time to even read books these days and no pastimes at all apart from an early-morning spell of yoga.
He expects a similar dedication from his administration. Bureaucrats are kept on a tight leash and to tight deadlines. Even cabinet ministers clock in and out, and keep him informed if they leave their offices for meetings, a radically different way of working in India.
Critics say that while Modi may not be personally corrupt, business leaders still fill the BJP’s coffers in return for favors. Others complain that the state is better at promoting industry than looking after its people.
Yet almost every village in Gujarat is served by a paved road and has a reliable supply of electricity and drinking water. Agriculture is also growing fast, thanks to investment in irrigation.
It is that record, his reputation for “getting things done,” that has positioned him as one of the favorites to become India’s next prime minister after elections due in 2014.
A survey released in January by the India Today magazine saw him outstrip Rahul Gandhi, the presumed favorite for the top job. Modi was favored by 24 percent of respondents, doubling his tally from the year before, while Gandhi, the son of ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, scored just 17 percent.
But if Modi gained the prime minister’s office, it would be slightly uncomfortable for the United States, which revoked his visa in 2005 because of his alleged role in the riots and continues to criticize his record in bringing perpetrators to justice.
The United States does not allow its ambassador to meet with Modi, restricting access to the level of its consul general in Mumbai. The British government will not deal with him at all.
Other countries are not so troubled by Modi’s record, and while contacts with Canada and Japan might not bother Washington, Modi’s warm reception on a visit to China last November would not have gone unnoticed.
Private conversations with Western diplomats suggest that there is a general desire to rehabilitate Modi, a feeling that bets need to be hedged in case he rises to national prominence.
“We believe it would dilute our influence to avoid Modi completely,” the U.S. Embassy wrote in a 2006 cable released by WikiLeaks, adding that waiting until Modi “achieved national stature” to engage with him could be seen as opportunistic.
But as much as business leaders might wish otherwise, the long shadow of the 2002 riots will simply not go away. The trouble began when 59 Hindus were burned to death on a train, after a fight with Muslims at Godhra station. Modi stands accused, at best, of not doing enough to stop the riots that followed, at worst of actively telling the police to stand aside and allow Hindu mobs to take their vengeance on Gujarat’s Muslims.
In the days that followed, between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims were brutally killed as police watched or at times actively abetted the violence. Since then, efforts to punish the perpetrators have been systematically blocked,Human Rights Watch says.
His supporters say it is time to move on. His critics say the systematic nature of violence makes this impossible.
Today Modi is trying to soften his image, perhaps with an eye on that national job. Yet there is still no remorse. Criticism from what he called “some vested interest groups” does not bother him, he said, “because I have not done anything wrong, and I am committed to the human cause.”
This year he embarked on a series of day-long “fasts” around the state, events where he sat pensively on a stage while sycophants, including some Muslim businessmen, spent hours extolling his virtues in the name of Sadbhavana, or compassion.
He said he wanted to remind people not only of his government’s achievements, but also that there had been no major violence between Hindus and Muslims since 2002.
“I want to convey to the whole global world: Please try to understand, you appreciate our progress, you appreciate our development, but beyond development and progress, the real strength of Gujarat is peace, harmony and unity,” he said.
Modi’s bulldozer style does not make him uniformly popular in the upper reaches of the BJP, and it could be extremely difficult to win over potential coalition partners to the idea of him as prime minister, especially if they are from states where Muslims are swing voters. With a major court case relating to the riots still pending, the 2014 elections could be too early for Modi, some commentators say.
In the glitzy shopping malls of the state’s biggest city, Ahmedabad, many seemed convinced that Modi would make a great prime minister.
“Whatever happened in 2002, the riots, it was all very right what happened,” said Kalkit Chaudhary, a 23-year-old training to be a government teacher. “If Hindus were killed in the train, why shouldn’t the same happen to the Muslims? Until there is solid evidence against Narendra Modi that he ordered the riots, we shouldn’t blame him for it.”
But in the slums of Citizen Nagar, where thousands of Muslims displaced by the riots have built homes beside a huge rotting garbage dump, the mood is different.
Muslims in Gujarat, social scientists say, are routinely denied access to bank loans, higher educational opportunities and government jobs. In Citizen Nagar, the government has refused to provide even the most basic amenities.
“There is not an iota of work he has done for us,” said 62-year-old Afroz Bano, who saw her son burned alive and five other family members, including three young children, killed in 2002. “He is a destroyer, not our protector. He is like a snake or a scorpion, and I hope he leaves our state with a blackened face.”