Narendra Modi knows how to work a crowd. As dozens of orange-clad supporters surge around his coach and jostle security guards clutching semi-automatic weapons, Modi rises on a hydraulic platform from within the vehicle like a portly, slow-motion jack-in-a-box.
The performance last month in the small Gujarati town of Dakor lasts barely 10 minutes, but it is exactly what the cheerful audience lining the rooftops and filling the main square have been waiting for in the midday heat: Modi, the orator with the common touch, boasting of his achievements in charge of Gujarat and mocking the corrupt, effete ways of the Congress party politicians who run the Indian central government.
“You must have heard about rupees being stolen,” he shouts. “Yes!” roars the crowd. “And gold being stolen?” Again the crowd agrees. “And diamonds and pearls. But have you heard of coal being stolen?” Modi gleefully refers to the so-called Coalgate scandal, in which the country’s official auditor has accused the government of losing more than $33bn (£21bn) in potential revenues by awarding coal mining concessions for next to nothing. “Should they be forgiven?” asks Modi. “No!” shout the voters of Dakor.
Anil Gohil, a 48-year-old tailor sporting an orange scarf and handmade waistcoat, is in the front row of the crowd. “No corruption,” he says, when asked what he likes about Modi. “He’s intelligent, and good for poor people. Modi is the best [candidate for] prime minister.”
Ten years after bloody communal riots in Gujarat shook India and shocked the world, Narendra Modi is on the move. The politician whose name seemed for ever tainted by the slaughter on his watch of hundreds of Muslim men, women and children by Hindu mobs in 2002 now wants to be prime minister.
Modi, a senior member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), the main opposition to the Congress-led coalition, is only one of several possible contenders for the premiership in the next general election due in 2014. The others include Nitish Kumar, a regional politician who runs the state of Bihar, and Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent in the dynasty of Congress leaders going back to his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India to independence in 1947. Either Congress or the BJP is likely to be the core of the next government, but neither is expected to be able to govern without coalition partners.
Modi’s enemies, Hindu, Muslim and secular, reject the idea of him leading the country as offensive, even preposterous. One Indian commentator who admires his lack of corruption privately describes him as an autocrat with “the mind of a Hindu mullah”. Yet there are Indians – including Muslims who once hated him and foreigners who ostracised him – who say that elevating Modi to lead the 1.2 billion inhabitants of the world’s largest democracy is not only possible but also essential for India’s future.
I intercepted Modi in Dakor on the last day of his recent yatra – a kind of religious-political procession that he conducted around Gujarat for a month – because the controversy surrounding the Modi phenomenon embodies the two most important issues in Indian politics today.
The first concerns religion and communalism. Will modern India forever be plagued by violence and distrust between the majority Hindus and the Muslims who make up 15 per cent of the population, and by other ethnic and regional conflicts? Or is it already developing into a stable democracy in which a once-divisive figure such as Modi could plausibly be prime minister?
The second issue is the economy. Modi’s recent return to political prominence has been driven in part by Indian business leaders and foreign investors. Appalled by what they see as the mismanagement of the broader Indian economy, they are full of praise for the way Modi has welcomed investment in Gujarat and built infrastructure such as roads and power stations. Modi’s critics, however, say the investment-friendly “Gujarat model” has done little to alleviate poverty or improve schools and healthcare.
What does Modi himself think of all this? Fortunately, Adeel Halim, a photographer working for the FT, has had the presence of mind in Dakor to sidestep the black-uniformed armed guards provided by the government, knock on the glass door of the coach and gesture to Modi for us to be invited aboard.
Modi obliges and ushers us in, and as the expedition continues past the villages, canals and rice fields of western India, he explains in English what he believes he has achieved in his 11 years as chief minister of Gujarat: “environment-friendly development”, water projects, law and order, “the best education system, best healthcare, peace, harmony”, confidence, political stability, skilled labour, no strikes and “efficient governance”.
Modi, sitting comfortably barefoot in the front of the coach next to the driver, has just been handed a printout of a surprise announcement made moments earlier by the British government that it is renewing official ties with Gujarat. They were severed in protest against the 2002 violence, in which three British Muslims were among the estimated 2,000 killed. Pressure from investors, and fear of being frozen out by a possible future prime minister of India, have prompted a change of UK policy.
So could he be prime minister, and replicate across India what he has done in Gujarat? “I am very, very focused. My focus is Gujarat.” He is thinking of the state election in December in which he hopes to win a fourth consecutive term of office. “I want to do so many things with my state, so I don’t have time to think about anything other than Gujarat.” I interject: “At the moment.” And he retorts: “I don’t use that word.” So what is he telling voters? “My message is simply development. I have tried my level best for the welfare of the people. If you give me four years more I will do more and better than before. My journey leads from good to great.”
Intrigued by this perhaps inadvertent reference to management skills (the full title of the Jim Collins book is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t) I ask Modi whether he can seriously claim there is peace and harmony in Gujarat. “Of course,” he says, insisting that it is one of the most peaceful and law-abiding states in India. Earlier he had boasted to the crowd in Hindi and Gujarati that the state had been free of violence for a decade and that people of all religions could peacefully celebrate their festivals.
So the events of 2002 are behind him now? “The issue is there with some few sections of society,” Modi replies curtly. And would any Muslims vote for him in a state or a national election? “This is the basic difference between me and the Congress party.” He grows heated. “I never talk in terms of religion, caste or creed. I always talk about the six crore [60 million] Gujaratis. And I never think about this ‘Who is Hindu, who is Muslim?’ It’s not on my agenda. All the citizens of my country, all the citizens of my state, they are the voters. I appeal to them. I do not single out anyone. That is not democracy.”
This kind of inclusive language suggests to those acquainted with him that Modi, once a Hindu fundamentalist firebrand, has either changed his own opinions or changed his public persona to broaden his appeal beyond the unusually devout confines of Gujarat. At the time of the riots in February and March 2002 – which were sparked by what is thought to have been the Muslim firebombing of a train at Godhra carrying Hindu pilgrims, in which 58 died – Modi was accused at worst of orchestrating the Hindu violence and at best of not doing enough to stop it. Sonia Gandhi, leader of the governing Congress party, once called him and his government colleagues “merchants of death”, but he has never been charged or convicted and has always denied involvement, saying that “I should be hanged in public” if his government was responsible.
This year, a decade after the riots, 32 people were finally convicted of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy for what is known as the Naroda-Patiya massacre after the location in the main Gujarati city of Ahmedabad. Among those urging on the killers was Maya Kodnani, a political associate of Modi whom he subsequently elevated to a state ministerial post in Gujarat. She was sentenced to 28 years in jail, and the belated resolution of the case, although it did not cast a favourable light on Modi, seems to have been a factor in encouraging the British government – and now perhaps the US – to renew official ties with him.
Among Modi’s political strengths, when he is compared with his wealthier and more urbane rivals, are his apparently austere personal life and humble background. Now 62, Modi used to help out at his father’s tea stall in Vadnagar and his uncle’s in Ahmedabad – the city, incidentally, where the Gujarati Mahatma Gandhi had his ashram in the 1920s. After two years of wandering to and from the Himalayas as a young man, Modi became a pracharak – a religious worker akin to an Opus Dei numerary – with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Organisation of National Volunteers), a rightwing Hindu group seen as the parent of the BJP. That meant remaining single and dedicating his life to the RSS.
Those who know him say the lack of a family eliminates some of the incentives for corruption affecting other Indian politicians, and allows Modi to work up to 18 hours a day without personal distractions. “He doesn’t have to worry about wealth creation and what he has to pass on to the next generation,” says one business leader in Ahmedabad who remembers him working at a tea stall as a skinny young man. “He has been trained as a very loyal and disciplined soldier of the BJP.”
Several of the people interviewed for this article described him as autocratic, hard-working and decisive – in some ways similar to the authoritarian east Asian leaders so admired by Asian and western business executives. No one accused him personally of corruption, although some called him an effective fundraiser for the BJP.
“Indian politics has become like an extortion racket,” says one Indian businessman and BJP supporter in the capital New Delhi. “Gujarat is a little less corrupt, but the important thing is that he [Modi] gets things done … That’s the beauty of the guy. That’s exactly what the country needs right now. It’s such a mess.” He concludes: “If Modi wins Gujarat [again] there will be a certain inevitability about his candidature [as prime minister].”
In “Bombay Hotel”, a Muslim slum also known as Citizen-Nagar on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, some 700km to the southwest of the capital, the residents have a very different view of Modi. They are among the 50,000 remaining refugees from the riots 10 years ago, and cannot forgive Modi or the police for what happened during those days of savagery and bloodshed. Nor do they see much evidence of Gujarat’s much-vaunted economic progress.
“When Modi says, ‘My 60 million people are happy,’ what about the people here in this colony?” asks Sheikh Khatun (Sheikh is a common family name), who runs a children’s nursery in her flyblown home overshadowed by a mountain of garbage. As she speaks, we are enveloped in the stench of a dead dog being dragged down the lane towards the dump by some children.
Sheikh fled from Naroda-Patiya in 2002 and does not want to return there to live. “Whenever we go there, what we saw then is what comes back – all the noises, everything. A lot of girls and women were raped, and a lot of boys were killed.”
Janvikas, a local charity supported by Action Aid, says that more than 16,000 internally displaced people still live in 83 relief colonies built by Muslim groups and non-government organisations – their continued existence “a chilling reminder, as if any were needed, that fascism has well and truly arrived”, it says in its 2012 report on the displaced.
“Modi is constantly trying to promote national and international business – it’s basically through all of this that he’s trying to change his image,” says one of Sheikh’s neighbours, an autorickshaw driver who witnessed the Naroda-Patiya violence and was himself injured. “He refuses to even accept that he was part of this [the killings].”
Across town, in the more prosperous, Hindu-dominated part of Ahmedabad, there is nevertheless one prominent Muslim who feels it is time to leave the past behind and accept Modi’s leadership as being good for all Gujaratis – and for Indians generally. Zafar Sareshwala, whose family has been in local business for more than a century and saw its assets destroyed in 2002 and in previous riots, owns an expanding BMW luxury-car dealership. (He says that they sold 530 BMWs last year, a tenth of them to Muslims.)
Sareshwala knew one of the three British Muslims killed in 2002, and was living in Dewsbury, near Leeds, at the time. “I took up this whole fight against Modi in the UK. We wanted to take him to the International Court of Justice,” he says in his showroom. “We basically mobilised the whole atmosphere against Modi and we were quite successful.”
After a year of campaigning, however, he changed his mind and decided that the best approach was to try to talk to Modi. He met him for two and a half hours – he has had dozens of meetings since – and found Modi responsive and accessible. Sareshwala was dismissed as a “sell-out” by some of his fellow activists. “When I met him the first time, it was ‘the Hitler of India’ or ‘Milosevic’ – these were the kind of names given to Modi.”
He adds that he is “totally against the whole ‘holocaust’ business, that we live on our miseries all our lives”. Sareshwala suggests that Indian Muslims depend too much on special privileges for minorities – which he calls “lollipops” – and should make the most of Modi’s commitment to efficiency and economic development. “Even his enemies don’t call him corrupt,” he says.
Asifa Khan, a party worker who left the Congress party to join the largely Hindu BJP the day before I meet her, is another Muslim who has switched sides. So recent is her move, in fact, that the receptionists at the BJP office in Ahmedabad assume I have come to the wrong place.
In the supposedly secular Congress party, she says, Muslims are kept at “a safe distance”, while Modi has recently encouraged them to stand for the BJP in local elections and focused on the economy. “He’s an able administrator,” she adds. “He’s getting popularity not only in India but also abroad.”
The fact that Modi has a few Muslim supporters and many Hindu opponents, however, does not make him a religious moderate or a unifying force in Indian politics. The bloodshed of 2002, and his refusal so far to make any public apology for what happened, ensures that he remains a divisive figure. His claims of economic success are less controversial, at least among investors. Tata, the Indian conglomerate, famously moved its Nano small-car plant to Gujarat from West Bengal after being accused of forcibly removing farmers from their land there to make way for the original factory. Ford is investing $1bn (£630m) in a car plant in Gujarat.
“Narendra Modi runs the state like the CEO of a multinational firm,” says one international financier of Gujarati origin. “One of the reasons he could make an effective prime minister is that you need a different attitude, a different style to control the civil servants, to break the logjam in Delhi. He doesn’t eat [a lot], doesn’t drink, doesn’t have a family. He has no attachment to anything and therefore is almost yogi-like in that sense.” As for the British decision to renew official ties: “To ignore the fastest-growing state in the world’s largest democracy when we are bending over backwards to do business with China [with] its questionable human rights record is incongruous at the least.”
These arguments, like Modi’s claims to be running a “green” economy, do not convince his numerous critics. “There are so many malnourished children,” says Ila Pathak, founder of the Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group. Pathak has met Modi and does little to hide her dislike for him and his policies. She would not want him as prime minister, she says, “because what is happening to Gujarat from the point of view of women is so horrible. He’s a fundamentalist and fundamentalists don’t care for women.”
Atul Sood, an economist specialising in regional development, says recent research shows that Gujarat’s economic growth has not created employment, while the state’s desperately understaffed education and health services are “terrible, terrible, worse than elsewhere”. He concludes: “There is lots to worry about in Gujarat. That’s important because the mainstream discourse seems to be that there is less to worry about in Gujarat.”
Ahmedabad-based environmentalist Mahesh Pandya says that Modi’s “climate change department” is a sham and that anti-pollution rules are routinely flouted by manufacturers. “Whatever the picture is outside about Green Gujarat, it’s Grey Gujarat. It’s not green.”
The crucial question for Modi, and perhaps for India, is whether the antipathy he faces from his Gujarati opponents and the Delhi elite is shared by ordinary Indian voters to the extent that they will stop him becoming the country’s prime minister. Some of the characteristics that frighten Indian liberals and potential coalition partners of the BJP – including his abrasiveness and his Hindu fundamentalism – are precisely those that endear him to many Hindu voters.
Ghanshyam Shah, a politics professor from Ahmedabad, thinks Modi’s problem will be his character, not his past. “What happened in 2002 may not stand in his way. Ten years have passed,” he says, but then adds: “I don’t think he can be India’s prime minister. One reason is that he has very strong likings and dislikings, very strong opinions. And because of that – it’s a sort of self-righteousness – he’s intolerant, he doesn’t like to tolerate dissent. He would like to concentrate power with himself – I’m not using the word dictator – to centralise power. Had it been the US political system, with a directly elected president, that would have been possible.” In the vastness of India, with regional politicians who need to be courted for any coalition government, a Modi candidacy, let alone a victory, looks less likely.
That is not the way it seems in Pavagadh, the Gujarati temple town to which Modi has proceeded after Dakor. It is here, at a huge public gathering as evening falls, that Modi is celebrating the end of his yatra in memory of his inspiration Swami Vivekananda, a 19th-century religious leader (also called Narendra) and global ambassador of Hinduism.
Garlanded with flowers, flanked by BJP leaders and with a plastic statue of Vivekananda illuminated in pink below the stage, Modi the orator is in full flow. He boasts that he has “washed away the sins” of previous governments in Gujarat, fought corruption, provided 24-hour electricity when north India was plunged into darkness in August, achieved 100 per cent enrolment of girls in schools and “helped save the lives of hundreds of thousands of mothers, thousands of infants” by extending healthcare to the countryside. “Oh Mother Goddess! [Kali, who has a temple in Pavagadh] With your blessings I have been able to perform the duty of a saviour.”
It is late, and some in the audience begin to drift away to their homes, grumbling that he is not speaking in Gujarati, the local language, but in Hindi, the lingua franca of most of the country’s population. The reason for his choice is clear: the cameras of the nation’s 24-hour news channels are focused on him, and Modi is looking beyond Gujarat to the much larger stage of India.
Victor Mallet is the FT’s South Asia bureau chief. Additional reporting by Jyotsna Singh