BJP leader to be India’s next PM?

By Sarwar Kashani Source:Global Times Published: 2014-5-5 23:43:01

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi attends an election rally in support of local candidates in Allahabad on Sunday. Photo: AFP

A Hindu nationalist who once sold tea at a railway station to make ends meet is emerging as the hot favorite in the race to be the next prime minister of India, a country that prides itself on its secular credentials.

But 63-year-old Narendra Modi's problematic political history and an anti-Muslim image, which are shaping the critical discourse around him, may cast a shadow on the rise of the most controversial Indian politician, who is a known hard taskmaster and has earned the knack of getting development done efficiently.

Every opinion poll conducted by various media houses and survey agencies has found Modi, who has headed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the western Indian state of Gujarat since 2001, the winner of the ongoing parliamentary polls. While the jury is still out on Modi, the decision of nearly 815 million Indian voters will be declared May 16.

Controversial head

Viewed as a dynamic politician who has transformed Gujarat into an economic powerhouse in his 13 years of governance, Modi has been considered a divisive leader.

This tag comes from his alleged inaction or complicity in the 2002 Gujarat religious riots that killed over 1,000 people, mostly minority Muslims. He has always denied these allegations. Though the BJP leader has been cleared by a court, many within the country and outside believe that Modi could have stopped the riots and saved innocent lives had he wished to do so.

The 2002 widespread rape and murder in Gujarat's Ahmedabad city and the surrounding towns and villages followed the death of 59 Hindu pilgrims on a train that was set on fire allegedly by a group of Muslims. Modi has refused to apologize for the riots.

"I feel sad about what happened but no guilt. And no court has come even close to establishing it," he says in the book Narendra Modi: A Political Biography.

The Gujarat riots made Modi an international outcast. The United States denied him a visa and the United Kingdom cut all ties.

However, the situation at the diplomatic level has changed a lot now. The US Embassy reestablished its contact with Modi and Ambassador Nancy Powell went to meet him in February this year to discuss US-India ties, security issues, human rights, and American trade and investment in India.

Earlier, the British High Commissioner in India met Modi and invited him to address MPs in the House of Commons.

Modi's defenders say he has changed. To his credit goes his ability to attract investment in Gujarat and his pro-business approach that has helped in huge infrastructure development in the state of 60 million people. This has helped position the modernizing nationalist as a panacea for India's sluggish economic growth. The sheer economic optimism he projects has made Modi a hero of India's growing urban middle class who hope his victory will help them get richer.

Modi's popularity on social media has overshadowed his opponents. One of the first Indian politicians to reach out to people in an organized manner on Twitter, Modi has over 3.5 million followers.

Image issues

Born in 1950 to a Gujarati Hindu family of grocers, Modi served tea at a railway station. He also went to a school where he is said to have developed interest in debate and theater.

For years, he maintained he was single and thus immune to corruption. "I am single, who will I be corrupt for," he has said in election speeches. Lately, however, he confessed in an election document that he was married to Jashodaben, a school teacher who lives in Gujarat. The marriage is said to have been solemnized when she was 17 and he 18. They lived together for a few months before Modi reportedly left home to travel to the Himalayas, where he apparently considered becoming a monk. He never returned to her.

His critics say his refusal to acknowledge his wife and his marriage all these years is reflective of his lack of respect for women.

"This eminently proves how he treats women, signifying he has no respect for his wife and for women in general," said Purnima Malik, a software professional in Delhi.

This also triggered an outpouring of criticism on social media for a man who is very conscious about his public image. "You can't stand for your girl, I don't think so you will stand for [the]]country," an Indian wrote on Twitter.

Known for his sartorial sense, Modi always wears his beard close trimmed and hair neatly brushed. During his poll campaign trail, he is said to change his attire at least thrice a day to look fresh and elegant every time he faces the people.

Risen through ranks

A writer who compiles his own speeches, Modi is a keen follower of Swami Vivekananda, a 19th century philosopher and Hindu seer. He was always attracted to the Hindutva ideology. He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - a right-wing Hindutva outfit - at a very early age. The RSS assigned Modi to the BJP in 1985. He quickly rose through the ranks of the party and became a senior executive in 1998.

His steep rise in politics is also attributed to his dictatorial nature, which is another worrying point for liberals. "As a leader of both party and government, Modi's tendency is to centralize and self-aggrandize. These traits are not entirely becoming in a prospective prime minister of a large and diverse country," historian Ramachandra Guha, one of India's leading public intellectuals, wrote in a recent newspaper article.

 "Listening to Modi speak, one is struck by how first person pronouns predominate - variants of I, me, myself, mine," Guha wrote about Modi, who superseded many party veterans when he was named as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

That dictatorial trait is perhaps what has earned this workaholic more admirers than opponents.

His leadership style puts up with little opposition, and he gets things done the way he wants and as soon as he wants, surpassing otherwise impenetrable red tape. In 2008, Ratan Tata, a top industrialist, had to shift his plant to manufacture the cheapest car from West Bengal because of local politics. Tata came to Modi with a proposal to relocate the factory to Gujarat. Modi said yes and it was done.

Soon India may say yes to Modi.

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