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Who Will Become the Prime Minister?

The recently concluded state elections in Gujarat, India, resulted in an unequivocal victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its incumbent chief minister, Narendra Modi. Despite the exuberance of his supporters, Modi and his party did not record a rampant victory and actually slid back by two seats compared to their tally of 117 out of 182 five years ago. While the maths of this is fairly inconsequential, anyone who observes Indian politics knows that nothing is inconsequential about Mr. Modi.

The success of the BJP leader in his state has propelled him to the front ranks of contenders for the most powerful job in the country. Yet success breeds many enemies, and Modi has certainly gained a shrill crowd for himself. As the next general elections come around the corner, many have questioned, particularly in the Western press, whether Modi can transform from a regional leader to a national one, or whether he might make a good chief minister but not an effective prime minister. It is certainly a healthy exercise to vet candidates for elected office and no doubt, it is debatable whether there are other candidates more able than Modi to become prime minister, but it is misleading at best to declare that the man from western India is not up to the challenge for the job in New Delhi.

Modi’s detractors have many salvos to fire against him, the first and most serious being his alleged role in the communal riots of 2002. It would be difficult, their argument runs, for the Government of India to be weighed down by suspicions about the role of its prime minister in a campaign of mass murder; India would find it difficult to function in the comity of nations when a dark cloud hangs over its leader. This logic is riddled with flaws – firstly, the judicial process so far does not bear out any grounds for such concern. Following the premeditated massacre of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya (including 25 women and 15 children) by Muslims, Gujarat was engulfed in riots which saw 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus killed. Modi’s detractors hold him responsible for the massacre, not only as the Chief Minister, but as an architect of the murder and mayhem. The details of this tragedy are beyond the scope of this article but suffice it to say that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court of India gave a clean chit to the Gujarat government, stating that they had done everything possible to prevent the riots and exonerated Modi personally of all charges.

Secondly, in the state elections concluded just a few days ago, Modi won eight of the twelve Muslim-dominated constituencies, puncturing the anti-Muslim image of Modi that his opponents had tried to spread. There can be no statute of limitations on mass murder, no matter how forgiving people are. Modi’s success, however, illustrates not only the willingness of Muslims to move on, but also that the chief minister is their choice for the future – not the sort of bet one makes on a threat.

Thirdly, if one is to disqualify Modi for the blood on his hands, the naive must be reminded that there is nary an Indian politician for whom this is not true. India has seen several bloodbaths over its nearly seven decades of independence, and the Gujarat riot is perhaps the most thoroughly prosecuted one, with more arrests and convictions being handed down than most other cases. One might also want to reflect on the as yet classified reports on the Saturn-Devouring-his-Son come to life Emergency of Indira Gandhi. To the outsider, these may seem old stories, but Indians have long memories to go with their even longer history. If one does not like to dwell in the past, might it then be fruitful to wonder about the Congress role in 2002? What a lay observer learns from all this is that while Modi is guilty by association, those same rules do not apply to any other candidate.

Modi is also painted as a Hindu chauvinist. Yet the image of a secular India that has been skillfully projected to the world is bogus – the reality is that the state does indeed interfere (unequally) in religious matters, funding pilgrimages and subsidising clergy. Hindu religious institutions have to contend with Hindu Religious Institutions acts of various states that do not apply to institutions of other faiths. The notorious Shah Bano constitutional amendment needs no mention, and for all the focus on saffronistas, no one has called to account Mulayam Singh Yadav’s scheme for reservations for Muslims and Mayawati’s Dalit promotions plan. In contradistinction, Modi’s rhetoric has repeatedly stressed development over caste and religion.

Moving on to economic objections, the critique of Modi is not to disqualify him as a prime ministerial candidate but to question his much publicised achievements. Leaving the economists to battle out the statistical details, some things are obvious to the layperson: rate of growth is also dependent on the base, and comparing Bihar to Gujarat is nonsensical; Gujarat has earned the confidence of business houses in India as well as internationally; Gujarat is one of the few states in India that has adequate power and is in fact exporting it to its neighbours; infrastructure in the state has improved significantly, and corruption has dropped too. There is still much work to be done, but Modi has brought a vibrancy and optimism to Gujarat that was not seen before. In just ten years, he has cut through the overgrowth of decades of state planning. Such a governance record is an extremely rare commodity among Indian politicians, and even rarer for it to be actually rewarded by the electorate.

Most importantly, Modi’s detractors argue, the prime minister is India’s first representative to the world. A figure whose reputation has been stained by accusations of mass murder can hardly maintain India’s stature in the international community; India will be hard-pressed to defend its secular credentials and have little soft power to speak of. Furthermore, it is not clear how the US visa row might resolve itself. Closer to home, relations with Muslim states stand to suffer as well, they argue.

These objections are laughable – the only people for whom the sun rises and sets with Modi are his supporters and opponents in India. For everyone else, a state’s stature in the world will be governed more by its economy, its military, and the law and order it can maintain than by the image of one man. International relations are based on interests, not false piety, and the US rapprochement with Mao Zedong’s China, its repeated proclamation that Pakistan is its closest non-NATO ally, and its canoodling with several unsavoury dictators over the years should eliminate any doubt as to where the US or most other countries would stand. Finally, the Muslim states bogey: though they will act as all other states – in their national interest – one must ask what the non-recognition of Israel has gained for India all these years…Saudi underwriting of Pakistan’s nuclear programme? What has decades of non-Modi/BJP rule achieved for India from across the border other than terrorism?

Modi may or may not turn out to be a good prime minister eventually, but there is no reason to doubt his credentials so far. If anybody expects him to be a Napoleon, Rockefeller, and Mother Theresa in one, well, let me disappoint you right now. The criteria for prime ministership is simple – the unrelenting pursuit of the national interest. Modi has shown his business acumen, administrative talent, political skill, and personal integrity in Gujarat, and has produced infinitely superior results than any candidate other parties might field. That one does not wish him to become India’s next prime minister does not mean that Modi is unsuitable for the job.