NEW DELHI - This man haunts the entire Indian political scene. Slightly plump, wearing a white beard and one of his colorful traditional kurtas tunics, Narendra Modi is sure to always don a saffron-colored scarf, the symbol of Hindu nationalism.
When he talks to his supporters, the 60-year-old is indeed attentive to the details of his appearance. Modi is clearly someone who believes in his own destiny. Assigned a halo by some and sulphur by others, both adored and loathed, the enfant terrible of Indian politics, is an absolute paradox. He has both all the assets to help him become the Prime Minister of the Asian giant, and all the handicaps to fail. He is simultaneously acclaimed by Indian corporations and accused of an awful political crime: having hidden, and perhaps even encouraged, anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that killed 1,000 to 2,000 people in the State of Gujarat– his territory as chief minister.
The Indian political microcosm has been buzzing around Modi in recent days. A report by the American Congressional Research Service (CRS) cites him as potential candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the Hindu nationalist party – in the next run for Prime Minister in 2014. Though still just a distant hypothetical scenario, the fact that Modi’s political future is taken seriously by analysts in Washington has thrown India’s politics into turmoil.
One could laugh at such speculation. The internal maneuverings of the opposition Hindu right-wing party, which led India from 1998 to 2004, might be of interest for some experts. But BJP’s candidate in legislative elections that are still more than two years away? So what.
But Modi’s name would not be making such waves if the Congress Party led by Sonia Ghandi – the heir of the Nehru dynasty – in power for seven years in New Delhi was not falling deep into such disrepute. Tainted by repeated corruption scandals and targeted by waves of middle-class protesters claiming to follow the Mahatma Ghandi – how ironic! – the Congress Party is sinking fast. In this toxic atmosphere, the return to power of the BJP does not look impossible. Hence the vaunted Mr Modi.
In the few lines about him, the CRS report nails his portrait. It highlights the double identity of the head of the Gujarat, efficient leader and man with a shady past. The Modi phenomenon is a mix of impressive successes in developing his state of Gujarat and his alleged collaboration in 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms.
A sort of Indian Janus, the two-faced Roman divinity. On one side, the praises are quite lyrical. With its 11% growth rate, Gujarat is like an Indian China where investors are welcomed with open arms. Discouraged by the archaic bureaucracy of the other states in the federation, “big business” figures make no mistake about it. Once every two years, they rush to his “Vibrant Gujarat” conference to embrace “Modi, the Visionary.”
Tata's blunt advice
All have their special ode to sing to the “model from Gujarat”. The famous Ratan Tata, father of the Nano – the cheapest car in the world – who had to move his factory to Gujarat after a series of setbacks in western Bengal, uttered this famous phrase to Indian businessman: “If you’re not in Gujarat, you are stupid.”
Then, on his dark side, there is the memory of the 2002 massacre, a controversy that will not fade. On February 27 of that year, 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed during an attack on their train by Muslims in Godhra (Gujarat). The retaliation was violent and showed how fragile the balance between religions in India can be. For several weeks, a wind of violence stormed on the Gujarat towns and villages. Under the conniving watch of the police, and organized by right-wing nationalists, hordes of Hindus craving for revenge went on killing sprees in Muslim neighborhoods.
What did Modi, the chief government minister, do to protect the victims from those groups of killers? His detractors accuse him of having ordered the police not to intervene. This question has been following him for almost a decade now. But Modi took refuge in silence and refuses to recall the ghosts from 2002, letting others speculate and probably hoping the controversy would be overshadowed by the celebrations of “Vibrant Gujarat”. But some of his friends think he is wrong the count on amnesia, and beg him to explain himself and firmly reply to his accusers. Indeed the 2002 drama has damaged his reputation beyond India’s borders - in 2005, the US terminated his travel visa.
Narendra Modi chooses to confront the matter with contempt, calling the protests “fake propaganda.” He instead strives ever more for the role of a saint, praying for “peace, unity and harmony”. On September 17, he started to fast in the name of his ideas, and one could almost see some of Mahatma Gandhi in him. The resemblance will surely not go much further.
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