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Is India's New Prime Minister a Neo-Fascist or a Reformer?

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

In the intense afternoon heat, the streets of Delhi lay deserted. April is hot in northern India, but on this occasion it was not because the capital was befuddled by the sort of gasping summer temperatures that Truman Capote described as a “white midnight.” Instead the streets were empty because it was polling day in the Delhi leg of the largest and most complex election in human history.

By the time the results are announced on 16 May, 815 million voters—more than 12 times the population of the UK, or over two and a half times the population of the US—will have cast their vote at one of 900,000 polling stations. One-fifth of the electorate will be voting for the first time, adding to the sense of unpredictability. The polling is staggered over nine separate stages to allow the redeployment of more than eight million security and election personnel around the country. In a further effort to prevent trouble, and to encourage participation, the shops and the bars are closed at each stage and everyone gets a day off.

So it was on that afternoon that the normally cacophonous Delhi roads were strangely empty. The only sound was the whirr of discarded political flyers tumbling in the late-afternoon breeze along the deserted sidewalks. In a city usually bursting with humanity, the only faces on show were those on election hoardings. And they were everywhere: filling every frame attached to every lamp post and every bus shelter, glued to every wall—the same three faces repeated over and over, all the way down the tree-lined avenues, up the flyovers and down into the cavernous entrances of the gleaming new Metro stations.

Yet the tragedy is that in this great country bursting with youth, beauty and talent, none of the three front-runners inspires any great confidence in his ability to pull India together, to unite it and to lead it forward safely and equitably to its rightful place as the regional economic and cultural superpower that could balance the ever-accelerating rise of China. Instead, all three candidates for prime minister have considerable flaws, and it is perhaps partly this that has resulted in the unusual bitterness of this election, polarising opinion and bringing an unprecedented acrimony to the national debate, not least on the new political battleground of social media. Here, whole call centres have allegedly been hired to wage Twitter warfare on behalf of the individual combatants. There is, however, an undeniable energy and excitement in the air. Everything is up for grabs, and anything is possible.

The candidate to put in the fewest poster appearances that hot afternoon was Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (“common man”) Party. On his posters and handouts, Kejriwal does indeed appear as the aam aadmi, the man in the street. Physically, he is a slight, oddly anonymous figure whose narrow face is dominated by his toothbrush moustache and rimless spectacles. In winter he is enshrouded in a muffler, swathed right around his head as you might wear bandages after breaking your jaw; in summer he wears an incongruously jaunty white party hat bearing the legend “Aam Aadmi,” which sits top-heavily on his head in the manner of a snuffer atop a candle.

Kejriwal is a former tax inspector of celebrated integrity who has dedicated his life to fighting corruption. He gave a huge jolt to Indian politics just before New Year when he successfully rode the wave of disgust at the long succession of corruption scandals and stormed the Delhi state elections, becoming our second-youngest ever chief minister. But his resignation little more than a month later, after only 49 erratic and oddly accident-prone days in office, was a major setback. As chief minister, he seemed to see himself as a guerrilla-activist, still pulling protest-stunts such as sleeping out on the pavement in midwinter, rather than as a mature politician who had learned how to seize the administrative reins and change things from the inside.

As a result of his resignation, he is no longer regarded as a serious player nationally. Nevertheless, Kejriwal has a doggedly tenacious gleam in his eye and an insistent, determined set to his mouth. Although he is the underdog in this race, hugely outgunned by the resources of India’s two largest parties, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and the left-wing Congress, he shows every sign of fighting on. He is likely to do well in Delhi and a few other urban centres: a respectable showing for a new party, but a far cry from what seemed possible as recently as January.

Putting in far more frequent appearances on the Delhi bus stands is the more familiar and visually more memorable face of the ruggedly handsome Rahul Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru’s great-grandson, Indira’s grandson and Rajiv’s son: the heir to the dynasty that is India’s most striking example of sexually transmitted democracy. Sadly the good looks and family tree appear to be his only assets.

On his posters Rahul is shown standing in Congress Party homespun khadi, arms akimbo, with three days of stubble decorating his sculpted chin. To either side of him on the posters stands a line of random young Indian faces, presumably selected by some PR agency: a Sikh, a pretty nurse, a rustic farmer, a builder in a hard hat and so on, apparently in an attempt to place Rahul, somewhat unconvincingly, as one of the people. The overall effect is like one of those ill-advised Vogue shoots where a model is shot strutting in all her Fifth Avenue finery amid exotic tribals, as if air-dropped in from another planet. On some versions of the poster, Rahul’s hand is implausibly photoshopped clinging on to the shoulder of a smiling day labourer in an image that oozes improbability at every level. There is something about Rahul’s embarrassed smile that seems to acknowledge the stagey quality of the montage. If opinion polls are correct, he is likely to be even more embarrassed when the results are announced.

This is largely not his fault. Congress is as unpopular as it is partly because of its gross corruption while in office, and partly because of its deeply unimpressive economic performance during the past five years under the weak, uncharismatic and monosyllabic Sikh economist Dr Manmohan Singh. Since being voted back into office in 2009, Singh has in effect halted the economic reforms that had made him so popular and retreated into a vast programme of rural benefits and agricultural welfarism. This was exactly the sort of well-meant but wholly unaffordable budget-busting handout that has hobbled the Indian economy for much of its post-independence history and which Singh initially won so many plaudits for reversing at the beginning of his ministerial career.

The result has been that India’s annual growth rate has sunk from a peak of 9.3 percent in the last quarter of 2010-2011 to under 5 percent this year, making the country slip from the world’s second-fastest-growing economy to tenth place in this index. Other economic indicators have been equally alarming: public borrowing has quadrupled in the past five years, the national deficit grew substantially, inflation is high and the value of the rupee has plummeted by 20 percent. Between 2004 and 2013, the wholesale price index for food went up by 157 per cent, vegetables by 350 per cent and onions by 521 percent, amid accusations of both corruption and mismanagement.

A series of voter surveys has shown that concern over the collapse of the Indian economy is the single most important factor in this election for almost all voters, of all religions, whether urban and rural. If it is this gathering fury at the corruption and mismanagement of the present government that is responsible for generating the appetite for radical change, Rahul’s lacklustre performance on the campaign trail has not helped his cause, either. His political career got off to a good start when his backstage manoeuvrings were credited with helping Congress to win the 2009 election. But a lamentable performance in a nationally broadcast TV interview at the start of this campaign almost killed that career overnight. Rahul came across as conceited and dim, if not borderline messianic-delusional, as he talked about himself in the third person: “You’ve got to understand a little bit about who Rahul Gandhi is,” he began. “Everybody understands that this fellow here is not just a superficial chap who just talks. This fellow over here is thinking deeply and long term.”

When not praising his own profundity, he parroted the same pre-prepared answers, irrespective of the question he was asked.

What did he think about the Gujarat riots? “The real issue at hand here is empowering the women of this country.”

Why did his party protect corrupt MPs? “The issue at hand is bringing youngsters into the political system.”

Why had he not spoken up when his government had sold coal reserves and telecom rights to party cronies for a fraction of their true worth? “The real issue here is bringing youngsters into the political system.”

Why is Congress still fielding its most corrupt ministers at this election? “We need to bring in youngsters.”

In all, he mentioned empowerment 22 times and finding a way to mend the broken political system no fewer than 70 times in 45 minutes.

If the autocratic Indira Gandhi was a disappointment after Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s most brilliant freedom fighter and the uniquely articulate first prime minister of independent India, and if Rajiv was a sad disappointment after Indira, Rahul would appear to be the very bottom of the Nehru-Gandhi barrel, tongue-tied and uncharismatic on campaign, conceited and slow-witted in private: in short, the complete electoral prophylactic, as Congress must sadly now realise to its despair.

This leaves only one other candidate.

Outnumbering the poster images of Gandhi and Kejriwal many times over in the Delhi streets is the face of this election’s overwhelming front-runner, Narendra Modi.

Modi is the Hindu nationalist son of a station chai-wallah, and as different a man as could be imagined from the shahzada, or “princeling”, as Modi mockingly refers to the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. With Kejriwal reduced to a minor player, the election in most of the country has been an unequal contest between the Modi juggernaut and a beleaguered Rahul, who is in the process of taking the can for the failings of a government he didn’t lead and can do little to redeem.

The battle represents a whole world of contestations: left against right, insider against outsider, secular Nehruvian vs. sectarian nationalist, Brahminical dynastic princeling vs. lower-caste, working-class, self-made man. There is little doubt at this stage which of the two is going to come out on top. Certainly Modi’s face, with its neatly trimmed grey beard and fiercely unsmiling expression, firm and unwavering, is apparently all too convinced of its right to line the roads of the Indian capital, bringing to mind the old lines from Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Modi is a strong speaker. In the past few months he has been transformed into a hugely popular, even cult figure for many around India and is now widely admired by many who do not share his Hindu nationalism. This is because he has come to embody the collective longing, especially among India’s middle class of 300 million, for an economic rebirth of the nation: after all, under his stewardship, the economy of the state of Gujarat, for which he has been chief minister since 2001, has nearly tripled in size. He also has a reputation for decisiveness, getting things done, rooting out corruption, stimulating investment and slashing through the bureaucratic red tape and outdated, cumbersome regulations.

It is easy to understand why so many Indians feel a need for bold change and why the thought of another five years of a dithering, divided and corrupt Congress government fills them with dismay. But it is less easy to understand why so many are willing to overlook Modi’s extremely dodgy record with India’s religious minorities.

In 2002, the year after Modi became chief minister of Gujarat, as many as 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed and about 200,000 more displaced in an intercommunal bloodbath. Large numbers of girls were raped; men were cut to pieces and burned alive with kerosene or burning tyres. Pregnant women had their womb slit open and the foetuses smashed in front of their eyes. Modi, who prides himself on his hands-on administrative skills, was accused of allowing the 2002 riots to happen, or even of ordering the police to let the rioters get on with their work—something he has denied.

A report by Human Rights Watch asserted that his administration was complicit in the massacres. “The attacks were planned in advance,” a senior researcher for the organisation said, “and organised with the extensive participation of the police and state government officials.”

Modi has survived several formal investigations by the courts without conviction, but he has never apologised for his gov­ernment’s failure to protect the minority or shown the slightest remorse for what happened. He refuses to answer questions about the riots. In a rare comment on the subject last year, he said he regretted the Muslims’ suffering as he would a “puppy being run over by a car”. Once he seemed to half-justify the actions of the rioters: in the US, he said, “An innocent Sikh was murdered after 9/11. Why? Because he looked like the terrorists. If the educated in America can get provoked, why use a different yardstick to evaluate Gujaratis?” On another occasion, even more chillingly, he told the Washington Post: “Why even talk about 2002? ... It’s the past. What does it matter?” His only regret, he told the New York Times, was his failure to handle the media fallout.

None of these statements has done anything to reassure anxious Indian Muslims, or liberal Hindus who value the pluralistic mosaic of their society. Nor has his party’s ongoing hostility to Muslims: 50,000 of the riot victims of 2002 continue to languish in extreme poverty, displaced in 83 “relief colonies.” Although there is only one known instance of his visiting them, Modi has derisively described the camps as Muslim “baby-making factories”. He continues to refuse to wear a Muslim skullcap on the election trail, saying that the cap is a “symbol of appeasement of the minority.”

Moreover, on Modi’s watch there was not a single Muslim candidate in Gujarat for member of the legislative assembly on the ticket of his Bharatiya Janata Party; across India, if you exclude Kashmir, there are only two Muslim BJP candidates. Muslims make up 13 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people, but of the 449 BJP candidates now running for the lower house of parliament, all but eight are Hindus. One of Modi’s closest associates, Amit Shah, has gone even further, and called on voters in Uttar Pradesh to reject parties that put up Muslim candidates. He also openly urged voters to use the ballot box to seek “revenge for the insult meted out to our community. This election will be a reply to those who have been ill-treating our mothers and sisters”—this in an area where dozens were killed in Hindu-Muslim riots last year.

This led to an almost unprecedented formal ban by the Electoral Commission of India on 11 April, stopping Shah from making any further public appearances in this campaign in Uttar Pradesh. He had previously been banned from entering his native Gujarat, where he stands accused of murder, using the local police as his proxies. Amid loud protests, the Uttar Pradesh ban was lifted on 18 April. Amit Shah is widely expected to become India’s home minister. If Modi is a frightening figure, it is properly terrifying to imagine Shah controlling the fate of 1.2 billion people.

On the campaign trail, whether from pragmatism or otherwise, Modi has largely kept his Hindu nationalism hidden and presented himself throughout as an able, technocratic administrator who can turn the country’s economy around and stimulate much-needed development. It could therefore be that the liberal elite are worrying needlessly and that India will get a leader who can kick-start the economy, who is incorruptible and who has left his sectarian past well behind him.

One can only hope so. Because, if the polls are right, Modi will win this election by some margin and we are likely to see many more images of the man plastered around the country over the next five years.

Given that by most calculations Narendra Modi will be holding the reins of power in Delhi in a fortnight’s time, it is surprising how few people here, outside a small inner circle of diehard sycophants, know the man at all. He has avoided Delhi for most of his life, and his team – with a few exceptions such as the dark legal genius of the BJP, Arun Jaitley, who is running in Amritsar—are largely those with whom he has worked in Gujarat.

Even in that small circle, few feel intimate with their idol, and what they tell you about his personal life adds to the sense of the man’s extreme austerity, self-discipline and self-sufficiency. “He is teetotal and vegetarian and lives an almost monastic lifestyle,” one told me. “He is extremely focused. When he talks to you he really listens: he can focus like few people I know.” “He calls it a day by eleven and gets up at four in the morning,” another aide said. “He spends the first 90 minutes of the day happily surfing the internet for articles about himself. His staff start getting calls by 5.30, latest.” “He is obsessed with personal hygiene,” said a third. “He changes his clothes at least four or five times a day. And he always eats alone. Always.”

Louis XIV was also said to eat alone but Narendra Modi was born in rather different circumstances from the Sun King’s. He was the third of six children born to a family from the low, oil-presser Ganchi caste in the small town of Vadnagar, in the heart of Gujarat; to provide for his large family, Modi’s father also ran a tea stall at Vadnagar railway station. Modi used to help his father in the early mornings at the station, then cross over the tracks to go to school.

A shaft of light has recently been thrown on his childhood after a bizarre revelation midway through the campaign. Modi has always talked of himself as single, but when he filed his papers to stand for this election, he declared for the first time that he was in fact married. According to the custom of his caste, he had been engaged at the age of three or four, underwent a religious ceremony at 14, and began cohabiting at the age of 17. After three months, he walked out to go on pilgrimage in the Himalayas and never came back.

In the subsequent fallout, Modi kept his usual silence, but his elder brother issued a statement saying that “45-50 years ago our family ... led a rather ordinary and poverty-stricken life. We belong to a family which was then bound by orthodoxy and plagued by social, educational and financial backwardness ... Our parents were not very literate and that is why they thought Narendrabhai was like all the other children. Our parents earned a livelihood and led a life according to their intellectual capabilities and conditions. It was this which later saw our parents get Narendrabhai married at a rather young age ... Today Narendrabhai remains as detached from his family as he was then.”

Modi returned from his pilgrimage and set up a tea cart outside the Ahmedabad bus stand, and it was here that he found a new family: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or Association of National Volunteers, which started life in 1925 as a far-right paramilitary organisation.

Like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements, and like its 1930s fascist models it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill and the giving of militaristic salutes: the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the arm, which is held horizontally over the chest. The RSS sees this as an attempt to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who, so the theory goes, will form the basis of a revival of a golden age of national strength and racial purity. The BJP was founded as the political wing of the RSS and most senior BJP figures have an RSS background, holding posts in both organisations. The RSS and the BJP both believe, as the centrepiece of their ideology, that India is in essence a Hindu nation and that minorities, especially Muslims, may live in India only if they acknowledge this.

Madhav Golwalkar, the early RSS leader still known simply as “the Guru”, was the man who formulated the outlines of the RSS world-view and looked directly to the Nazi thinkers of 1930s Germany. He took particular inspiration from Hitler’s treatment of German religious minorities. “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging of its Semitic Race, the Jews,” Golwalkar wrote admiringly in 1938.

“Race pride at its highest has been manifested there. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures having differences going to the root to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by ... The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture ... or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”

During Partition, the RSS was responsible for many of the worst atrocities against Muslims, and it was a former RSS swayamsevak, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 for “pandering to the minorities.”

In the aftermath of the assassination, Pandit Nehru decided to deal firmly with the Hindu nationalists and he denounced the RSS as a “private army which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines”. Partly as a result of this, the Hindu nationalists were an insignificant political force during the first decades of independent India; but by the 1980s they had returned with a vengeance. Today the RSS has roughly 40 million members, organised under 40,000 district centres across the country.

This was the organisation that took Modi in, and which, he acknowledges, made him what he is. “I got the inspiration to live for the nation from the RSS,” he said recently in an interview. “I learned to live for others, and not for myself. I owe it all to the RSS.”

Initially he swept and washed for the local RSS boss; but quickly he rose up the ranks, gaining a reputation as an efficient organiser. By the late 1980s he had become a senior figure in the RSS’s Gujarat chapter. From here, he was given the job of liaising with the Gujarat BJP and before long had moved across from the RSS into its political wing.

His first big assignment came in 1990: to help organise the Gujarat leg of the Rath Yatra chariot march on Ayodhya from the great Hindu temple of Somnath, a campaign in which Modi played a crucial role. The campaign led to the destruction two years later of the Babri Masjid, a mosque said to have been erected by the first Mughal emperor on the site of the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram—and which for Hindu nationalists is a symbol of the centuries-long oppression of Hindus by Islamic rulers, an injustice they are determined to avenge.

On 6 December 1992, after being whipped into a frenzy by the speeches of BJP leaders, a crowd of 200,000 militant Hindus stormed the barricades protecting the mosque. Shouting slogans—“Victory to Lord Ram!”, “Hindustan is for the Hindus!”, “Death to the Muslims!”—the militants began pulling the building apart with sledgehammers and pickaxes. One after another, like monuments to India’s time-honoured traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism, the three domes of the mosque fell to the ground. In as little as four hours the entire structure had been reduced to rubble.

Over the next fortnight unrest swept India: crowds of angry Muslim demonstrators came out on to the streets only to be massacred by the same police force that had earlier stood by and allowed the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) militants to destroy the mosque without firing a shot. Mobs went on the rampage across India as Muslims were hunted down by armed thugs, burned alive in their homes or knifed in the streets. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people had been slaughtered in Bombay alone. In all, about 2,000 people were killed and 8,000 injured.

It was a measure of how bad things had become in India that this violence played so well with the electorate. In 1991, the BJP had taken 119 seats in parliament, up from 89 in the previous election. In 1996 that proportion rose to 161 and the BJP became the largest single party in the Lok Sabha. Finally, the party won the 1998 general election with a record 179 seats.

By this stage, Modi had been rewarded for his work by being promoted to serve as the BJP’s national secretary—a remarkable achievement for a low-caste politician from the provinces in a party still dominated by metropolitan Brahmins. He moved to Delhi and began to work on converting himself from a backroom provincial figure into a recognisable national politician. In 1999, during the Kargil crisis, when Pakistani troops occupied a slice of Indian Kashmir, Modi made a series of jingoistic interventions on Indian TV, on one occasion proclaiming: “We won’t give them chicken biryani; we will respond to a bullet with a [nuclear] bomb.”

He used his proximity to the centre of power to begin politicking internally, in particular working to undermine his main rival, the then BJP chief minister in Gujarat, Keshubhai Patel. Vinod Mehta, the former editor of the leading Indian news magazine Outlook, remembers Modi turning up at the office in 2000 with a file full of documents incriminating Patel in some scandal. “I immediately felt this man was bad news,” Mehta told me. “There was something sinister about him and the way he spoke, and I felt deeply uncomfortable in his presence. He complained about Patel and talked about corruption. He came back a couple of times, but I didn’t run the story. Before I knew what had happened he was back in Gujarat as chief minister in Keshubhai’s place.”

Modi took office on 7 October 2001. He had been chief minister only four months when, on 27 February, a party of Hindutva activists, returning from Ayodhya, where they had been holding a tenth-anniversary celebration of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, were caught in a burning wagon as their train stopped in Godhra station. Fifty-nine people were burned to death. A subsequent investigation found that the fire started by accident, due to a malfunctioning gas cylinder, but Modi, without evidence, immediately announced that it was a Pakistani-Muslim conspiracy. He called a statewide strike and had the burned bodies of the Hindutva activists paraded around Ahmedabad while he made a series of incendiary speeches.

The following day, a huge mob of Hindu militants, armed with petrol bombs, iron rods and swords, gathered outside the Gulbarg Society, a residential complex in an upper-class Muslim area, home to a former Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri. Seeing that the police were observing the mob but making no attempt to control or disperse it, Jafri began calling round his contacts and begging for help. According to several survivors, Modi was among those he called. “After calling Modi, Jafri was totally depressed,” Imtiyaz Pathan, an electrician who had taken refuge in the house, told the Independent. “When I asked him what had happened, he said, ‘There will be no deployment of police.’ ” According to Jafri’s widow, Zakia, Modi taunted her husband and expressed surprise that he was still alive.

Shortly afterwards, at around 3pm, Zakia Jafri watched in horror from her balcony as rioters marched her naked husband from their home and chopped off his fingers, hands, arms and head, then tossed the body on an open pyre. All the while the police looked on without intervening, telling victims, “We have no orders to save you.” An investigative magazine later caught several ringleaders on camera claiming that the chief minister had approved the attacks: “Modi had given us three days to do whatever we could,” one of them boasted.

What happened in Gulbarg that day lies at the heart of the accusations against Modi. He denies all knowledge of events there and claims that he was not informed until 8.30pm, five hours after the massacre had finished. This version of events has been accepted by the Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team, which examined the matter at length. However, there are clear contradictions in the SIT report that make it hard to accept: for instance, records of a flurry of communications during the afternoon, as the violence unfolded, between police officers present in Gulbarg and their superiors. The SIT report praises Modi for holding a series of meetings with police officers throughout the day. If he was being briefed hour by hour, how then could he not have known about Gulbarg until late that evening? As a result, the report has been much criticised, especially since a former associate of Modi’s took out an affidavit claiming that a draft of the report had been sent to the Gujarat state lawyers for vetting and possible redrafting.

A Supreme Court-appointed independent legal witness, or amicus curiae, believes there is still enough evidence to put Modi on trial, and an earlier Supreme Court statement called him “a modern-day Nero.”

In the meantime, the case, including a new challenge from Zakia Jafri, continues to work its way through the legal system and there has not yet been a final ruling. But it is not true, as is often stated by Modi’s supporters, that the Supreme Court has given him a “clean chit”. In reality, the court has yet to rule on the matter; the facts remain in dispute and the case is ongoing.

For several years after the riots, Narendra Modi was a political pariah. Thirty-two people were finally convicted of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy over the riots, among them Maya Kodnani, Modi’s one-time minister for women; she was sentenced to 28 years in jail. Sonia Gandhi denounced Modi as a “merchant of death” and several BJP MPs also broke ranks to criticise him. The US and UK refused him visas.

Electorally, however, his approach proved disturbingly popular. In state assembly elections held after the riots, Modi returned to power with a greatly increased majority. In the meantime, he got on with ruling Gujarat, and proved an able and energetic administrator who could implement policy effectively on the ground.

One of his first actions was bringing about exemplary reforms of the Gujarat electricity supply that have led to it being better supplied with power than almost any other state in India. Within a few years it was not just Gujarati voters, but also corporate chief executives who were beginning to express enthusiasm for Modi’s administration and the ease of doing business in his state.

By 2007, he had got the reputation for being tough on lazy bureaucrats and intolerant of those who were corrupt. Much of their work was put online, increasing transparency and reducing the opportunities for laziness and graft. Judges were asked to work extra hours to plough through a backlog of court cases. At the same time, Modi continued to invest heavily in infrastructure such as roads and power stations.

The turning point came in October 2008, when Tata Motors moved its car plant for its much-publicised new budget hatchback, the Nano, from the leftist-dominated West Bengal to the pro-business Gujarat. In 2011, Ford invested $1 billion in setting up another car plant. Before long, Gujarat started to make headlines, not for riots, but for its new image as an economic powerhouse. From 2003, Modi began holding an annual summit, Vibrant Gujarat, which cumulatively generated investment pledges of $920 billion. All the most prominent Indian captains of industry, from Ratan Tata to the Ambanis and Mittals, rallied behind Modi and declared him India’s most business-friendly chief minister.

Gujarat now enjoys double-digit growth and there is no question that Modi has run an economically successful administration. However, his claims to have made the state’s economy an ideal for the rest of India is disputed by economists, who point out that the “Gujarat Model” has done little to alleviate poverty or improve indexes of
education, malnutrition or health care.

Today Modi remains the most polarising figure in Indian politics. Many intellectuals and urban liberals view him as an almost satanic figure pushing India towards fascism. They point to his record with dissent: journalists from the Times of India who wrote against his government had sedition charges brought against them; Rahul Sharma, a policeman who helped convict many of the 2002 rioters, had his promotion blocked (“due to misspellings”); Teesta Setalvad, the lawyer who brought riot cases against him, had charges of embezzlement slapped on her. Most sinister of all, Haren Pandya, Modi’s former home minister, who agreed to give evidence against him to an independent commission of inquiry into the riots, was first made to resign his position, then deprived of his seat and finally murdered in mysterious circumstances in 2003. Modi, the argument goes, displays all the signs of becoming an Indian Putin. 

The BJP election manifesto certainly seems to show that the core Hindutva project remains in place: the document opens with a elegiac description of the brilliance of ancient India, “the oldest civilisation in the world”. Yet its long list of ancient Indian achievements stops dead in the 12th century with the arrival of the Muslim Turks. There is no mention of the glories of Mughal architecture or miniature painting or Urdu poetry, nor any of the wonders of the syncretic Indo-Islamic civilisation that flourished with such panache until British colonialism snuffed it out. The BJP’s vision of Indian greatness is still one that is exclusively Hindu.

Yet little of this seems to have affected Modi’s popularity. India’s middle class loves him and regards him as the most hard-working and efficient politician in India. One of his biggest admirers in Delhi, who has known him for many years, told me that Modi’s Hindutva views haven’t changed but his interests have: that he was now much better travelled and more sophisticated than he was when he first came to power, and that his obsession was now catching up with China, whose rise he has followed closely.

Economic growth is what Modi would concentrate on, he told me, not least because he believes it is a readily achievable goal. “He has fought the election on creating business opportunities and turning the economy around,” the admirer said, “and that is what he most wants to achieve.” He thinks he can do it: his success in stimulating the economy in Gujarat has whetted his appetite to do the same for the rest of India.

Others take comfort in the idea that India has many constraints that will slow down any attempt Modi may make to turn the prime minister’s office into some autocratic powerhouse. India has, after all, a pugnacious press and an active judiciary. It is a hugely diverse country and its history shows that, in the end, all its rulers need to embrace that diversity in order to govern effectively. “He wants to be in power for a long time,” the veteran editor Shekhar Gupta was recently quoted as saying. “[At 63] he is young by Indian standards, and that is not going to work with a purely polarising agenda. What works in Gujarat does not work in the rest of India.”

Much will undoubtedly depend on the size of Modi’s majority: a haul of 220 out of 543 seats would give him a free hand to bring about deep-seated change. Ruling through a fractious coalition—still the most likely outcome—would severely limit his options in such matters.

Here lies the one big surprise the election may yet hold. For the most important trend in Indian politics over the past 20 years has been the apparently irreversible rise of strong regional parties as both Congress and the BJP have lost a growing number of seats to strongmen ruling through an alphabet soup of local party acronyms: the TMC in West Bengal, the BJD in Orissa, the DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, and so on. If Israeli politics is increasingly about small religious parties gaining a disproportionate degree of influence by controlling small vote banks that can swing elections and decide the balance of power, the same is true of the regional parties in India. In the event, for all the media excitement about the rise of Modi and the fall of the Nehru-Gandhis, this election could be about the less glamorous and more complex story of an India where the regional tail is increasingly wagging the federal dog.

What seems certain, however, is that, in the absence of any serious competition, the BJP’s Modi will be the man attempting to build the new coalition: not necessarily something to which his abrasive character will be suited. In voting like this, India is knowingly taking a terrific gamble on its future, in effect choosing to ignore Modi’s record on civil liberties and human rights in return for putting in place a strong and decisive leader who would be brave enough to make the difficult reforms and provide the firm governance and economic prosperity this country is craving.

William Dalrymple is the New Statesman’s India correspondent. His most recent book is Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan.

This piece first appeared on It was published May 12.