Decade on from riots, Modi eyes India's main stage

Modi's main selling point is the success of Gujarat's economy, Muslims in province say they still fear being targeted.


Afp October 17, 2012

PHAGHVEL: He was in power during India's worst religious riots since independence and remains a hate figure for many of the country's Muslims.

But Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state, insists his region is now a role model for the rest of India as he positions himself for a widely expected tilt at the premiership.

"Gujarat is progressing because we have peace, unity and compassion here," Modi told AFP. "If the poison of religion was present... and we were only catering to one section of society, then my state would not have prospered."

The 62-year-old has been at the helm of the western state for more than a decade. Already one of India's longest serving chief ministers, he will seek a fourth mandate in state elections in December.

He came to prominence for all the wrong reasons in 2002 when up to 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in riots that raged across the state shortly after he came to power.

India's top court compared him to Nero, the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned. One of his former ministers was jailed for life for instigating the killing of 97 Muslims in one of the most notorious episodes of the riots.

All investigations into the tragedy have cleared him of any personal responsibility.

But while the United States continues to deny him a visa for violations of religious freedom, his pariah status appears to be waning. Britain announced last week that it was ending its 10-year boycott of Modi.

"I am very happy that world leaders think they should meet me and do business in Gujarat," he told AFP on his Japanese-made campaign bus, wearing his designer rimless glasses with a saffron-coloured tunic and white trousers.

Speaking at a stop ahead of the elections in which he is expected to cruise to victory, Modi attributed his popularity to the notion that "people like right-wing leadership".

While careful to avoid openly declaring his ambitions for the premiership, observers say Modi is using the state election to burnish his chances of leading the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into national polls due in 2014.

The ruling Congress party, led by the softly spoken octogenarian technocrat Manmohan Singh, has endured a torrid time in power and Modi says India is crying out for leadership.

"One may be a good bureaucrat, one may be a good academician but a leader is one who understands the pulse of people. The country does not need an administrator, it needs a leader," he said.

RK Singh, a political science professor in Ahmedabad, said it was clear that the bachelor, born to a father who ran a tea stall, has his eyes on a bigger prize than re-election in Gujarat.

"Modi knows the political game extremely well. He sits in Gujarat but has his eyes set on the prime minister's chair," said Singh.

Modi's main selling point is the success of the economy in Gujarat which has enjoyed annual growth rates of between 10 and 12 percent since 2007, outpacing the rest of the country.

Some of that success is down to the influx of foreign firms such as the auto giants Ford and General Motors who have been attracted by the reliable power supply, good infrastructure and a ready supply of cheap but educated labour.

"I am not saying that everyone should learn from our success in Gujarat, such talk would be arrogant," he said before adding that two core ingredients were "political stability and a clear-cut vision".

Speaking at a rally in the village of Phaghvel, 40 kilometres from the main city Ahmedabad, Modi expanded on his theme by declaring that "the people who blackened my name now see what I have done for the people of this state".

However, even some political allies dispute the idea that Modi has repaired the damage wrought by the 2002 riots.

"Hindus have the upper hand over Muslims in Gujarat," said a senior BJP leader on condition of anonymity, pointing out that his party has not fielded a single Muslim candidate in the state elections.

"It is a fact that all the decisions and policies are made by Hindus. Muslims have no say here."

Diler Jahan, a Muslim who attended the rally in Phaghvel, articulated the continuing sense of grievance among the community in Gujarat.

"Everything is for the Hindus in this state," said Jahan, a kitemaker. "He (Modi) never talks about Muslims. We exist and want him to show some love and respect to our community."

"Our anger against him has faded but the insecurity that we could be targeted again still remains. It is his duty to make us feel secure and give us more opportunities."

Modi began his political career as a campaigner for the hardline Hindu outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), seen as the BJP's ideological father.

The BJP, which lost power nationally to the left-leaning Congress in 2004, has yet to choose its candidate for prime minister next time round.

Elections are scheduled for 2014, but could come even earlier if the technically minority government loses support from outside allies.

Analysts say that if Modi wins the state elections with a thumping majority, he would put himself himself in pole position - and line up the intriguing prospect of an electoral showdown with Rahul Gandhi.

Gandhi, the 41-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, is in many ways Modi's opposite.

If Modi is an outspoken, occasionally brash right-wing Hindu nationalist, media-shy Gandhi epitomises the left-leaning secular tradition of the Congress party in the world's largest democracy.

While Gandhi's father, grandmother and great grandfather all ruled India, Modi wears his more humble roots with pride.

"My mother still wears the most inexpensive slippers and never uses my name to seek any favour," he said.

COMMENTS (18)

gp65 | 9 years ago | Reply

"“Everything is for the Hindus in this state,” said Jahan, a kitemaker. “He (Modi) never talks about Muslims. We exist and want him to show some love and respect to our community.”"

Wrong. Most of his policies have no religious angle. Narmada project gave water ane electricity to everyone - Hindus and Muslims. Improved roads benefit everyone HIndus and Muslims. When investment comes to the state, everyone's employment prospects improve and they can get work in their own states instead of having to migrate. If COngress could have pointed out ONE policy that was pro-Muslimt they would have gone to town with it - but there is not one policy they can quote that discriminates against Muslim or favours Hindus.

gp65 | 9 years ago | Reply

"He came to prominence for all the wrong reasons in 2002 when up to 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in riots that raged across the state shortly after he came to power".

Factually incorrect. 794 Muslims and 250 Hindus died as per answer provided in the parliament. Any random numbers made up by people do not have the same sanctity as a parliamentary answer. Apart from the inaccuracy, the information is also not complete. What always seems to be left out in Pakistani riots is the triger to these riots - 60 Hindu pilgrims were burnt alive by Muslims. This does NOT justify the riots but does explain the anger. Also what is often not stated is that the riots lasted for exactly 2 days after which Modi ordered the army to come in and the riots were brought completely under control. There have been many provocations (Akshardham Oct 2002, Ahmedababd bombings May 2008) since then but no riots in the last 10 years in Gujarat. In the 2007 state elections, BJP (the party that Modi leads in state) won in many Muslim majority areas in Gujarat.

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