November 21, 2013 6:58 pm

India: Modi muscles in

Even the politician’s admirers in the business community admit he could be a risky choice
A devotee shows his back with an image of Gujarat CM Modi as he flexes his muscles during the 134th annual Rath Yatra in Ahmedabad

For the past two months, a cavernous office in the Gujarati capital of Gandhinagar has become the improbable focal point of Indian public life. Flights to the nearby airport at Ahmedabad are packed with politicians, campaign managers, pollsters, foreign diplomats and European arms manufacturers.

At a glance
Ready to run; Gujarat state will be the at the centre of Modi’s campaign
Fightback; Modi is labeled as Hindo nationalist who would alienate Muslims
Shunned; Modi was comdemned over the murder of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002
State power: A vast collection of rival democracies

The man they have come to see sits serenely behind an enormous desk of polished wood, flanked by a portrait of a Gujarati lion: Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state for more than a decade. In September, he was named as prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata party, India’s Hindu nationalist opposition.

Six months before a general election in the world’s biggest democracy, Mr Modi has seized control of India’s political debate and commandeered the news agendas of its hundreds of television channels and newspapers. At times, his campaign feels like a slickly produced US presidential candidacy, whose primary message is that Mr Modi is the man to give India the vigorous leadership the country has lacked for more than a decade.

Mr Modi has bulldozed the BJP into naming him as its candidate earlier than is customary for a leading Indian party. He is also using next month’s state elections to show off his formidable skills as an orator and launch the first phase of a relentless national campaign for the general election to be held by May next year. Already, bitter enemies and fanatical supporters alike – and he has plenty of both – are mesmerised by Mr Modi.

His character and his controversial record are emerging as the central themes of the national poll. Mr Modi’s big selling point is his success in promoting development in Gujarat, the northwestern state that is home to strong industrial and agricultural sectors. His supporters claim the Modi model can be exported across India, meeting the aspirations of the country’s frustrated young men and women. More than 10m young Indians enter the workforce each year with little hope of finding a formal job.

While the Lion of Gujarat prowls around India, the governing Congress party is in a defensive crouch. Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party leader, and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, is halfheartedly named by ministers as their most likely prospect. But no formal announcement has been made, and if he wins he might choose a stand-in, as Mrs Gandhi has done in the form of Manmohan Singh, the sitting prime minister.

Back in his youth, Mr Modi, 63, worked as a tea seller at Ahmedabad railway station. He later became an activist for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Organisation of National Volunteers), a rightwing Hindu group.

Today, he can draw hundreds of thousands to his rallies. He delights the crowds, mocking Mr Gandhi as an effete “prince” and mummy’s boy who has risen to prominence only by virtue of his name and privileged upbringing.

Campaigning in Chhattisgarh last week, Mr Modi was on vintage form. First he drew laughs from the crowd – and from television audiences nationwide – with an exaggerated imitation of Mr Gandhi’s habit of repeatedly drawing up his sleeves while making speeches. Then he turned the tables on a politician in the governing coalition who had questioned whether a tea seller could be prime minister.

“A tea seller is a better person than those who sell the country,” Mr Modi said, scoring double points for a simultaneous attack on elitism and corruption.

Arun Jaitley, the BJP leader in the upper house of parliament, likens the party’s anti-incumbency messages to the campaign that swept Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in Britain in 1979 on the back of the slogan about high unemployment: “Labour isn’t working”.

Mr Modi, says Mr Jaitley, has started to exploit the government’s weaknesses after two administrations and nearly 10 years in power: mismanagement of the economy, with the annual growth rate halving over the past two years to less than 5 per cent; corruption; internal security (shorthand for Islamist terror attacks such as the one that killed 166 people in Mumbai five years ago); and lack of leadership.

“Do you need a weak, humble man or a tall politician?” asks Mr Jaitley, referring to Mr Modi’s political stature rather than his stocky physique. “Modi has marked the revival of large mass rallies. There is a charisma.”

He adds: “When the hand of history touches you, these things keep adding up . . . He’s going to be decisive, he’s taller than any other of his contemporary leaders and he’s making a conscious effort to confine himself to the governance agenda.”

Congress leaders are privately in awe of Mr Modi’s rhetorical and organisational abilities – he has even begun using high-tech holograms to allow an avatar to address rallies while he is engaged elsewhere. But they warn that he is a dangerously polarising figure who is, at heart, a Hindu fanatic.

If he were to become prime minister, they insist, he would alienate the Muslim minority – about 15 per cent of the population – and foment new conflict between religious groups in a country that has learnt to live in peace since the violent partition with Pakistan.

Sitaram Yechury, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), speaks for a significant minority of secular and liberal Indians who are fearful of Mr Modi. The BJP leader’s popularity, he says, is “chillingly reminiscent of the appeal that Hitler had among the German youth”.

As evidence of Mr Modi’s unsuitability for high office, his opponents cite the Gujarat bloodletting of 2002. After a massacre of Hindu pilgrims, Hindu militants murdered hundreds of Muslims in Ahmedabad while Mr Modi and his associates either condoned the attacks or, at best, did nothing to stop them. Mr Modi, who denies involvement, says he should be publicly hanged if his government were responsible. He has persuaded European governments – though not the US – to drop their boycotts of him over the killings.

Even the purported Modi economic miracle in his home state – where his decisiveness and push for efficient infrastructure have made him popular with investors – is a mirage, his opponents say. Gujarat, they argue, has long been a prosperous centre of investment and trade, while the supposed achievements of the past decade in areas such as health and education turn out to be no better than those of comparable Indian states.

The Modi model in Gujarat was “deeply flawed”, according to P. Chidambaram, Indian finance minister, in a recent FT interview. “He’s cynically ignoring the poor of India.”

One cabinet minister, asked about an economist’s observation that India was awaiting Mr Modi as one might watch the dark clouds of an approaching typhoon, said tartly: “The typhoon could weaken before landfall.”

The response is revealing. In New Delhi, the capital, there is an air of fin de régime in the homes and offices of Congress party leaders, tempered only by the hope that Mr Modi will somehow commit a political blunder to undermine his popularity.

Ministers are also anticipating that this year’s good monsoon rains, combined with official handouts in the form of rural jobs, food subsidies for consumers and higher crop support prices for farmers, will persuade voters in the countryside to stick with Congress or its allies.

But for whom exactly will they be voting in this personalised contest, which Mr Modi and his strategists have conceived to coincide with the culmination of the television era in India?

At No. 7 Race Course Road, the official residence of the prime minister, the studious and soft-spoken Mr Singh is eager to defend his economic and legislative record, particularly since it is only in the past two years that growth has faltered. But he has decided at the age of 81 that he should make way for a younger and more dynamic leader, such as the 43-year-old Mr Gandhi.

To the despair of Congress strategists, the amiable Mr Gandhi has to date shown neither the political ambition, the energy, nor the rhetorical skills of Mr Modi, 20 years his senior.

One way to measure the extraordinary extent of Mr Modi’s hold on the Indian imagination is to head south to Mumbai, the country’s teeming commercial capital and home to many of its tycoons and foreign executives. Most business leaders say privately that they favour him over Mr Gandhi.

After years of sustained inflation, frustrating bureaucratic delays for power stations, factories and hotel projects, a recent collapse of the rupee, the court-ordered closure of iron ore mines and periodic blows to confidence such as the retroactive capital gains tax legislation targeting Vodafone, investors are weary of Congress and tired of having their country unfavourably compared to China.

Mr Modi, says the head of one Indian conglomerate, is a better orator than Barack Obama and does not need a Teleprompter.

“This guy has tapped some unmet aspirations of young people,” the executive says. “He’s one of the most astute people I’ve ever met.”

Investors are aware that Mr Modi’s reputation as “anti-Muslim”, which he vigorously denies, and the perception that he is a bully make him a potentially risky choice as leader of India. The same business leader recalls one of Mr Modi’s recent speeches as “a brilliant combination of rabble-rousing and logic”. Another Indian tycoon, asked to describe the best and worst things about Mr Modi, says they are the same: “He’s autocratic and a micromanager.”

The backing of big business means Mr Modi will not be short of money to mount his election campaign from his headquarters back in Gandhinagar.

It is true that even in his Gujarat heartland, there are people who detest him for his past, for his policies, for his style of doing business and his undoubted popularity among the rich. Ila Pathak, a campaigner for women’s rights in Ahmedabad, is among those who say is he is better at rhetoric than effective action.

He is prone to “sudden orders and no planning”, she says briskly. “He only looks after the rich. The neo-rich middle class worships him.”

And is he dangerous? “Yes, of course he’s dangerous. That’s not a question to ask in Gujarat.”

Mr Modi himself tells visitors that his aim is to spread good governance and effective policy implementation across India, to focus on development rather than religious differences, to emulate Singapore and South Korea and to allow India to rise as a democratic power.

One question today is whether a personalised election campaign can work in a country where people have long voted according to caste, region and religion – and in a first-past-the- post electoral system where it is not the national share of the vote but the number of constituencies you win that counts.

For the time being, however, Mr Modi has political momentum. “He wants to be successful. He wants to leave a legacy,” says the head of a Mumbai-based conglomerate.

“He wants to be prime minister.”

State power: A vast collection of rival democracies

India is rightly described as the world’s largest democracy but it would be more accurate to call it a collection of rival democracies where elected institutions disagree on vital matters of policy and law.

Even if a single party has a majority of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the national parliament, the central government must accommodate the demands of 28 elected state governments on issues such as land and water. (A single party has not held a majority in the Lok Sabha since 1989.)

If these states were countries, some would rank among the largest in the world. Uttar Pradesh alone, with more than 200m people, is more populous than Brazil. The decision in July by the Congress-led central government to create another new state – Telangana, the 29th, carved out of Andhra Pradesh in the southeast – underlines the strength of local interests in modern India.

State elections, such as the five being held this month and next, are therefore more than glorified opinion polls ahead of the general election. They create new centres of power that investors and politicians neglect at their peril.

“We would love to have a two-party system, but we don’t,” says a senior Congress cabinet minister. He notes that Sikhs asserting their identity in Punjab, northeasterners neglected by the centre and southern Tamils resentful of the dominance of the (northern) Hindi language have asserted themselves through regional politics. “In fact every year brings at least one new party.”

Even when led by assertive politicians such as Narendra Modi, the two main parties – the left-leaning Congress and Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, the Hindu nationalist opposition – are constrained by the states’ influence.

“If the two national parties want to expand their space, they have to be national, of course, but they also have to reflect regional or local aspirations,” says the minister. “In the next election, the two main parties may not get more than 300 [seats] altogether.”

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