Why you should care

The world’s largest democracy — and its ninth-largest economy — could make a sharp rightward turn. 

In the coming months, a diminutive 63-year-old could topple a three-generation dynasty and prevail in the largest democratic undertaking the world has ever seen.

Never mind the mass killings.

Meet Narendra Modi, the apotheosis of far-right Hindu nationalism. Last month, India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), named him its prime minister candidate. Elections are due by May, and Modi stands a good chance to win. He also stands accused of complicity in religious violence — in particular, of failing to stop and possibily inciting mass atrocities against Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat, when he was chief minister. (Between 800 and two thousand Muslims were murdered, some of them burned alive.) Indian courts cleared Modi of wrongdoing, but some observers doubt the impartiality of the judgments. The United States, meanwhile, has repeatedly refused to grant Modi a visa, reportedly because of his role in the 2002 events.

Nonetheless, Modi has since become India’s most popular politician. He remains publicly devout, but his mantra on the campaign trail is “toilets first, temples later.” Foreign and domestic investors alike adore his “pro-business” policies, while India’s massive, ever-emerging middle class salivate over Gujarat’s supposedly high growth rates and its electricity surpluses. With his pudgy cheeks, silver beard and a belly that strains his knee-length kurta, Modi looks more like a benign elf — or perhaps pregnant grandfather — than a mastermind of atrocities, repository of Muslim bias, or even the Machiavellian genius he must be.

Modi’s transformation is among the most astonishing political makeovers of the new millennium.

Modi’s transformation is among the most astonishing political makeovers of the new millennium: In the space of a decade, Modi has gone from poster boy for deadly intolerance to “development man,” says Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of monthly newsmagazine Caravan. The head of the U.S.-India Business Council praises Modi for showing that “progress trumps politics.” Says Jose: “The press, the media, the international community, the middle class, the upper middle class — everyone overlooks the past that he’s known for.”

The heart of that past is “Hindutva,” a religio-nationalist philosophy that holds that India’s identity is rooted in Hinduism. Hindutva stands in opposition to the secular nationalism embodied by the Indian National Congress, the political movement that has dominated India since its independence in 1947. Mahatma Gandhi, the independence leader, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, imagined India as a nation of religious diversity, one that could provide Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Buddhists alike a homeland.

Narendra Modi smiling to a crowd.

What Narendra Modi Means for Indian Democracy

Source Corbis

That vision has never been easy to implement. Pakistan broke off at the beginning, its leader asserting the need for a Muslim homeland. Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by a frustrated Hindu nationalist. Decades later, religious violence and outright riots, such as those that occurred in Gujarat under Modi’s watch, are not uncommon. In many ways, Modi’s juggarnaut signals ”the coming of age of the Hindu-right movement in this country,” says Jose.

To be sure, Modi has gotten a huge assist from the secular Congress party, which has long held sway over India’s polity but has hemorrhaged credibility over the past decade. Many Indians perceive Congress as hopelessly corrupt, with a chokehold over the economic prospects of a new, aspiring class of millions of people. The Congress party is also overtly dynastic. Its putative candidate for prime minister is Rahul Gandhi — son of Rajiv Gandhi (a former prime minister who was assassinated in 1991) and Sonia Gandhi (Congress party president), grandson of Indira Gandhi (prime minister, assassinated in 1984), and great-grandson of Nehru (India’s first prime minister). Power runs in the family — and a growing cohort of Indians believe it shouldn’t.

He openly disdains Congress’ version of secularism, infuriating an old guard of Indian luminaries who still cherish the ideal.

While Modi has billionaire businessmen on his side, he can’t thank family connections for his power. He was son of a chai-wallah, or tea seller, and was born to a lower caste. He claims neither children nor wife. Hindu nationalism is the closest thing he has to a family. He openly disdains Congress’ version of secularism, infuriating an old guard of Indian luminaries who still cherish the ideal. When Modi recently accused Congress of hiding behind a “burqa of secularism” every time there’s a crisis, former UN honcho Shashi Tharoor retorted that he’d rather a secular burqa than the khaki shorts of Italian fascists.

Modi appears a frighteningly energetic and compelling campaigner. Videos of him on the trail attest to his power to hold tens of thousands of people rapt for hours. He claims to be a workaholic who logs four hours of sleep at night — not that he has trouble sleeping, he says — and practices yoga and meditative breathing. His social media efforts are inescapable and sophisticated (the custom link-shortener on his website is nm4in), and no wonder: Modi hired two of India’s most prominent social media minds to handle his Internet campaign. Modi is vigorously promoting “Brand Modi,” with Modi kurtas, Modi tattoos and Modi saris.

It definitely shows a strain of marketing genius. But some of the claims that Modi makes for Gujarat’s economic growth are overstated, even misleading, Jose says. Gujarat has posted growth rates above the national average, but they are falling. And while the state has a surplus of electricity — enough to sell it — hundreds of thousands of Gujarati farmers still go without.

It’s not clear that Modi’s support extends far beyond the hard-core ideologues of the Hindu right, or the relatively well-off Indians who are so loud on the Internet, or whether he could assemble a broad-enough coalition to govern. Come May, by when an estimated 780 million Indians could come out to vote, we’ll find out.

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