India desperately needs a new political leader and it looks as if there is a chance it might get the person who many people fear and despise. He is Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and the most charismatic politician in the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s main parliamentary opposition.
This possibility moved forward this week when India’s Supreme Court decided not to proceed with a case against Modi that stems from his widely suspected role in encouraging, or at least allowing, Gujarat’s Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002. More than 2,000 people are believed to have been killed, with 12,000 Muslims losing their homes.
A local court now has to decide what to do. If it does not continue with the case, Modi will play a more national role in the BJP, and might then return to the party’s national headquarters, maybe as party president, after Gujarat’s state assembly elections next year. Despite infighting among the BJP’s current leaders, that would put him in pole position to be the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 general election, succeeding L.K.Advani, another hard-liner.
This possibility has been apparent for some time, but it has gained credibility this week, first with the supreme court decision, and then with the emergence yesterday of a US Congressional report that praised his work (even though he has been refused a US visa because of the riots). It said 2014 might be a direct contest between Modi and the Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi, who is heir apparent to Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president and his mother.
Rahul Gandhi is seen as a future prime minister and is believed to have been more active in top party decisions following the hospitalisation in the US last month of his mother, who returned to Delhi last week after what is believed to have been a cancer operation. There are rumours he might soon become the party’s top official, alongside her.
The two men could not be more different in style and experience. Modi is a powerful orator, wily politician, and able administrator as he has shown with the development of Gujarat since he became chief minister ten years ago. Gandhi is shy and unproven and, as the US report put it, “remains dogged by questions about his abilities to lead the party, given a mixed record as an election strategist, uneasy style in public appearances, and reputation for gaffes,”
I first wrote about Modi in a column for India’s Business Standard in July 2002, after the riots. I had been away in the UK when they occurred and felt on my return, while condemning the appalling massacre and Modi’s reported role, that India had a new potential national leader.
I wrote that “unlike most politicians, the Gujarat chief minister was arguing passionately for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction. He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground and presenting his case with rare confidence and élan – and, whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence (some call it ego). To a bystander, he looked like a logical heir for L.K.Advani.”
Friends and contacts had told me that I was wrong. “How could a man who had presided over such ghastly bloody carnage ever win popular respect and a wide following? Weren’t Gujarat’s people tiring of the violence and wasn’t he in fact already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job? The BJP, I was told, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners. So Mr Modi had no future”.
However, I had experienced a different side of the man, as I explained: “I have only met Mr Modi once – before he went to Gujarat as chief minister – when we shouted at each other (as, it seems, one is expected to do) on Star TV’s Big Fight programme. He wouldn’t stop bellowing out his single-minded message in decibels that the sound system fortunately muted for television viewers, and I was trying to ask a question – all of which got lost in a fade-out for adverts.
At the end of the programme, we had laughed and he asked if he’d spoken enough in English for me to know what he was on about. He hadn’t, I wrote, “but that didn’t matter because it was obvious anyway – strident Hinduvta and, in the context of the programme’s subject, anti-Muslim rhetoric. I came away with the impression of a driven and (sometimes) charming politician – a potent mixture for a political leader.”
Since then, Modi has been continually attacked for the riots, but he has won two state assembly elections and has led the state well. His sort of application and policy implementation are just what India needs after years of increasingly ineffectual leadership and lack of achievement by the current Congress-led government.
But it might not happen. The BJP has little support in parts of India, particularly the south, where it has just squandered a chance to expand by running a spectacularly corrupt oligarchic state administration in Karnataka. It therefore always needs to attract coalition partners, which it finds difficult because of its Hindu-chauvinist policies. It did however manage to build a coalition for its 1998-2004 governments by agreeing a policy programme that avoided anti-Muslim and other hard-line measures. Indeed those were years of relative communal harmony – a record ruined by the Gujarat atrocities.
The chances of it being able to rebuild that trust with Modi as leader has seemed remote ever since 2002. It remains so today, unless Modi is prepared to apologise for the riots. He is trying to move on by staging a three-day “social harmony” fast this weekend, but he still rejects all allegations against him, so seems unlikely to readying an apology.
When 2014 comes, Nitish Kumar, the development-oriented chief minister of Bihar and a BJP ally, could emerge as much more acceptable and moderate coalition candidate for prime minister. However, the BJP might be tempted to portray Modi as the sort of strong though divisive leader that India needs, especially if the Gandhis don’t smarten up the way that the current government operates and is run.
John Elliott, The Independent