EVEN five years ago it would have been inconceivable; but, with a general election due by next May, Narendra Modi is the front-runner to become India’s next prime minister. The long-serving chief minister of Gujarat has always had a core of passionate supporters for his mix of economic efficiency and hardline Hindu nationalism, and because he gets things done, an increasing number of voters see him as the saviour of India’s struggling economy (see article). But Indian politics has no more divisive figure. A terrible blot hangs over his reputation since an orgy of violence in his state in 2002 left over 1,000 dead, most of them Muslims. Do his qualities outweigh that huge stain?
If Mr Modi looks like the country’s leader-in-waiting, that is a measure of the state of the ruling party. Congress has been in power since 2004 and long ago lost its vim. India’s once-scintillating growth rate has fallen by half to 5%. With a need to find new jobs for 10m Indians joining the workforce each year, such sluggish growth brings a terrible human cost. It is this backdrop that makes Congress’s drift and venality look so dangerous. The 81-year-old prime minister, Manmohan Singh, once a reformer, is serving out his days as a Gandhi family retainer. Rahul Gandhi might end up as Congress’s next candidate for prime minister; yet the princeling seems neither to want the job nor to be up to doing it.
In four of the five state elections announced this week Congress was deservedly walloped. One encouraging sign was the emergence of an anti-corruption movement in Delhi (see article). The main beneficiary of this passion for change, however, is Mr Modi. Not only is he the prime-ministerial candidate for the Hindu, centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but, to an unusual degree for an Indian party, he is the public face of its campaign. His visibility helps account for its success this week in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. A brilliant orator, the 63-year-old attracts huge crowds around the country. Whereas Indian politicians usually pay people to attend their rallies, Mr Modi charges an entrance fee—which is both a sign of the enthusiasm he arouses and a way of making supporters feel they belong to a powerful movement. Many of India’s business titans are besotted with him. Anil Ambani of Reliance Group calls him “the lord of men, a leader among leaders and a king among kings”. Investors think that he would fire up the economy. Bright young acolytes are giving up well-paid jobs to join his campaign.
Much about Mr Modi appeals to this newspaper too. He is a man of action and an outspoken outsider in a political system stuffed with cronies. In contrast with the pampered Mr Gandhi, great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru and son of Sonia Gandhi, Congress’s behind-the-scenes boss, Mr Modi comes from a low caste and a modest background as a tea-seller; his success is down to drive and ambition. And in a system shot through with corruption, he seems pretty clean.
Unusually for a serious contender to be prime minister, Mr Modi has a record from a dozen years as a chief minister. Gujarat, a state of 60m people, has boomed as he has cut red tape and built roads and power lines. Business has flourished and investment has poured in. Gujarat accounts for just 5% of India’s population, yet produces nearly a quarter of its exports. State GDP has almost tripled under Mr Modi. Most social indicators have also improved. Even among Muslims, generally poorer than Hindus, the poverty rate has fallen from over 40% to 11% in two decades. Mr Modi talks of replicating Gujarat’s rapid growth, industrial development and improved infrastructure across India. That is refreshing. Politicians usually promise subsidies and largesse for special interests.
This is the Modi who could save India and greatly benefit hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people. But his business supporters should face the fact that there is also a Modi who risks breaking India. Two serious questions hang over his character.
The first concerns his leadership. He is an autocratic loner who is a poor delegator. That may work at state level, but not at national level—particularly when the BJP is likely to come to power only as part of a coalition. A man who does not listen to the counsel of others is likely to make bad decisions, and if he were prime minister of India, and thus had his finger on the button of a potential nuclear conflict with Pakistan, Mr Modi would be faced with some very serious ones.
Beyond the pale?
The second issue concerns the dreadful pogrom that happened on Mr Modi’s watch. No Indian court has found him guilty of any crime. Yet it is hard to find an Indian who believes he does not share some responsibility for what happened—if only through neglect. He is banned from travel to America because of it. In this context, Mr Modi’s failure to show remorse, which goes down well with his Hindu chauvinist base, speaks volumes.
The BJP is not the only party in India with a bloody history. Congress turned a blind eye in 1984 as thousands of Sikhs were massacred in rage at the murder of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Yet Congress does not pursue a policy against Sikhs or any other ethnic or religious group, while Mr Modi has devoted much of his life to the pursuit of an extreme form of Hindu nationalism. His state party included no Muslim candidates in last year’s election and he has refused to wear a Muslim skull-cap. Other BJP leaders have worn them. He failed to condemn riots in Uttar Pradesh in September in which most of the victims were Muslim.
All sins of omission perhaps, but in India symbols like skull-caps matter—as Mr Modi well knows. India’s great strength is its inclusiveness. In the next five months Mr Modi needs to show that his idea of a pure India is no longer a wholly Hindu one. How he does that is his own affair, but an unambiguous public demonstration that he abhors violence and discrimination against Muslims is a bare minimum. Otherwise, this newspaper will not back him.