Narendra Modi has been the longtime Chief Minister of Gujarat State. During his incumbency in the BJP-led government in India in 2002, rioters in Gujarat killed nearly 1,000 people, most of whom were part of the Muslim minority. Modi was heavily criticized for the failure of his government to stop this orgy of communal killing. As a result, he had become somewhat of a persona non grata, especially with western governments. The U.S. authorities had refused him a visa to visit the United States.
However, Modi’s star is currently in the ascendant. BJP has anointed him as their candidate for the Prime Ministership. In the elections to be held next spring, he is expected to lock horns with Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi and the leader of the incumbent Congress party. There is a better than even chance of the BJP being voted once again into power as according to some observers, Indian voters are angry with the Congress’s inability to improve their lot. In contrast, Mr. Modi is widely admired by middle class Indians for making Gujarat one of India’s fastest growing states. Modi has been positioning himself as a successful politician, one who can revive the economy, which has been weakened by a decade of mismanagement by the coalition government headed by the Congress.Modi can refer to the statistics of economic wellbeing provided by the National Council of Applied Economic Research. According to its recent report, the richest city in India is now Surat, ahead of Bangalore and Madras, with an average annual household income of Rs 0.45 million (over $11,000 per year). Furthermore, between 2004-2005 and 2007-2008, Surat’s middle class doubled in size and its poor were reduced by a third. The fifth richest city in India is now Ahmedabad, ahead of Bombay and Delhi. Of Gujarat’s 18,048 villages, 17940 have electricity. Under Chief Minister Modi, the face of industrial Gujarat is changing. The world’s largest oil refinery is coming up in Jamnagar. Owned by Reliance, it already refines 660,000 barrels of oil a day and will double that this year. India’s wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani is Gujarati and the head of Reliance. Forbes says, “He is the world’s fifth richest man worth $ 43 billion.” According to KPMG, a U.S. based tax, audit, and advisory services firm, 40% of India’s pharmaceutical industry is based in Gujarat with companies like Torrent, Zydus Cadila, Alembic, Dishman and Sun Pharma. Azim Premji of Wipro is of Gujarati origin and is the world’s 21st richest man, worth $17 billion. In fact, ten of the 25 richest Indians are Gujarati. Some of the best business communities in India – Parsis, Jains, Memons, Banias, Khojas, and Bohras speak Gujarati. It is also noteworthy that the two great leaders of the subcontinent, Mahatma Gandhi and Quaid-e-Azam Mohamed Ali Jinnah, were both Gujaratis from trading communities. The former was a Bania and the latter was a Khoja. Finally, another impressive statistic about Gujarat is that at 55 million, the state comprises only 5 percent of India’s population and yet it accounts for 16 percent of all Indian exports and 17 percent of GDP. It is quite clear that Modi will trumpet the economic success of Gujarat as a forerunner of what he could achieve if elected as Prime Minister of India. According to a NYT op-ed, “Modi’s strident Hindu nationalism has fueled public outrage. When Reuters asked him earlier this year if he regretted the killing in 2002, he said, if ‘someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.’ That incendiary response created a political uproar and demands for an apology.” The NYT concluded that India was a country with multiple religions, more than a dozen major languages, and numerous ethnic groups and tribes, “Mr. Modi cannot hope to lead it effectively if he inspires fear and antipathy among many of his people.”
Modi is controversial because of his communal mindset. His strongest asset will be what he has achieved in Gujarat. Whether that is enough to overcome his political and personal drawbacks to propel him into the highest office in the land remains to be seen. With the Indian populace weary of Congress’ involvement in various scandals, they may well turn to Modi as a lesser of the two evils.