Modi's Moment : On the Anniversary of the Ethnic Violence in Gujarat, the State's Militant Chief Minister Is Both Unrepentant and Possibly a Harbinger of India's Political Future

By Power, Carla; Mazumdar, Sudip | Newsweek International, March 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Modi's Moment : On the Anniversary of the Ethnic Violence in Gujarat, the State's Militant Chief Minister Is Both Unrepentant and Possibly a Harbinger of India's Political Future


Power, Carla, Mazumdar, Sudip, Newsweek International


Drums beat, as supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) push forward to toss marigolds and rose petals at Narendra Modi. When Gujarat's chief minister emerges from the airport in the BJP stronghold of Rajkot, there's a cry and a crush of men in saffron scarves emblazoned with the BJP lotus symbol. That evening, speaking at a local IT college, the reception is just as rapturous. "The media say this man is like Hitler," says a local BJP man, introducing Modi to the packed auditorium. "They portrayed him like a devil." And yet, the emcee says, he won the vote. When Modi stands up and starts talking--without notes--in his grave, low voice, the neatly pressed crowd stops fiddling with its mobile phones and starts listening.

Modi is good at entrances. At a Mumbai rally this winter, he emerged from a giant pink hydraulic lotus created for him by a Bollywood set designer. His entry into the national political spotlight has been no less dramatic. In 2001, as a mid-ranking party functionary, he was dispatched from party headquarters in Delhi to steer Gujarat's BJP. Then, a year ago this week, he became the poster boy for India's vicious communal tensions. On Feb. 27, 2002, Muslims set fire to a train in the town of Godhra, killing 58 Hindu pilgrims. In the days that followed, well-organized Hindu crowds retaliated by burning, looting, raping and killing hundreds--some say thousands--of Muslims. Modi's early response (which he later denied) was that Hindu rage was an "equal and opposite reaction" to the train attack.

Newspapers, opposition politicians and human-rights groups charged the Modi government with being complicit in the violence. Even after the riots subsided, Modi's rhetoric did not cool. In his fall campaign for re-election as Gujarat's chief minister, he blatantly played to anti-Muslim and anti- Pakistani sentiments, telling voters that a vote for the opposition Congress Party was a vote for "Mian Musharraf," a phrase that linked the Pakistani leader with defamatory Gujarati slang for Muslim. "He was basically trying to say that all of India's Muslims are hidden Pakistanis--traitors to the nation," says Teesta Setalvad, editor of Communalism Combat.

For the BJP, Modi is the perfect 21st-century political specimen: disciplined, media-savvy, silver-tongued and a hard-line Hindu nationalist. "By telling audiences, 'It is only I who can save you from the Muslims,' he speaks in the way that Hindus want to hear," says Jay Dubashi, a former BJP adviser. "He has become an icon for the party." That's particularly true since his fiery Hindu nationalism landed him two thirds of Gujarat's vote, ending a string of BJP election defeats around the country. Party leaders are trying to figure out how to replicate Modi's Gujarat victory in four state elections this month, with three more to come later this year.

There's even talk that Modi could be India's next prime minister. For those keen to preserve India's secularism, painstakingly constructed by leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, that's a terrifying thought. Pundits and opposition politicians worry that Modi-style intimidation of Muslims, Christians and other minorities is making India feel increasingly like 1930s Germany. Human Rights Watch has accused Modi's police force of being complicit in the 2002 violence. "Who is this Human Rights Watch?" he says, in an interview with NEWSWEEK as his eight-seater ministerial plane flies to Rajkot. "Who is behind them? Who funds them?" Besides, he adds, the riot issue is being looked at by a government commission. In the meantime, "the people of Gujarat have already replied, so it's not necessary for me to reply." To his accusers, he quotes Jesus: "Oh, forgive them Lord, they know not what they do."

Love it or loathe it, Modi's Gujarat success has triggered political soul- searching in India. The judiciary's failure to investigate his government for its involvement in the riots, says Justice A. …

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