Written by Bella Dalima
16 May, 2014 | 8:34 pm
India’s prime minister-in-waiting – a staunch Hindu nationalist and the Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat since 2001 is a deeply polarizing figure and an unproven commodity on the international stage.
Analysts predict his arrival in the country’s top office will bring a marked change in direction for the world’s most populous democracy, a nation whose modern character has been defined by the inclusive, secular and liberal approach of the Congress Party, which has governed for most of the post-independence era.
The only question, they say, is how great a departure Modi’s premiership will be from what has come before.
The 63-year-old former tea seller’s immense popularity — a Pew survey ahead of the elections found nearly 80% of respondents held a positive view of him — stems in large part from his reputation as a tough, “can-do” administrator, the man with the medicine to kickstart India’s stuttering economy.
‘The Gujarat model’
The so-called “Gujarat model” of development means a focus on infrastructure, urbanization and eradicating red tape – seen as a much-needed tonic for a country ranked 179th in the world by the World Bank in terms of ease of starting a business.
A sharp contrast to the traditional approach of the outgoing Congress Party — which has focused on promoting inclusive growth involving a raft of welfare schemes — it’s proven highly attractive to business. India stocks have risen almost 18% this year at the prospect of a Modi-led government.
India’s largest conglomerate, the Tata Group, relocated a car plant into the state four years ago, a move the company’s former chairman Ratan Tata credits in part to Modi’s involvement.
The promise of economic development is just as enticing to the public, and resonates particularly with the aspirations of the 100 million young voters who were eligible to cast their ballots for the first time in 2014, said Dilip Dutta, director of the South Asian Studies Group at the University of Sydney.
But not everyone is convinced about Modi’s economic prescription.
Moreover, many feel that economic development in the state has been unequally distributed, and not matched with corresponding gains in human development.
Modi’s hard-nosed, occasionally abrasive leadership style will also present a marked departure for a country accustomed to a more consensus-driven approach, analysts believe.
Modi and Muslims
The greatest concerns about a Modi premiership revolve around his ability, as a hardline Hindu nationalist, to lead a country as culturally and religiously diverse as India.
Since he was a boy — the third of six children born to a family of grocers in the city of Vadnagar — Modi has been a supporter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing pro-Hindu social movement.
His track record with India’s 180 million-strong Muslim community, the country’s second largest religious group, has come under intense scrutiny.
Less than a year after Modi assumed office in Gujarat in late 2001, the state was wracked with anti-Muslim violence, in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
Modi was criticized for not doing enough to halt the violence, but a Supreme Court-ordered investigation absolved him of blame last year. Modi subsequently expressed regret over the riots but was criticized for not apologizing.
The U.S. State Department denied Modi a visa in 2005 over the issue, but has since said it would welcome Modi to the United States if he wins.
The tensions are not merely a relic of the past. As recently as September last year, more than 60 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced in religious riots in the Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh state. Most of the affected were Muslims.
Hundal notes that during the election campaign, Modi appeared alongside associates including a Gujarati politician who made inflammatory speeches speaking of “revenge” for the 2002 riots and called on voters to reject parties with Muslim candidates.
Amid what many see as a rising tide of intolerance drummed up by Hindu nationalist groups, some Muslims fear what a Modi-led government means for their community.
Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, is the site of plot of land that has been the subject of a longstanding dispute between Hindus and Muslims. Hindu hardliners destroyed an historic mosque on the site during a political rally in 1992, triggering riots across the country in which more than 2,000 people were killed.
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