x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

'Mistakes' in Modi's past will be a test for India's future

The controversial record of Narendra Modi, who claimed an emphatic victory in Gujarat last week, will be a test for a nation coming to terms with its past.

Politics in India just got a bit more interesting. Thursday's election results - which made 62-year-old Narendra Modi chief minister of the state of Gujarat for a third consecutive time - are having reverberations far beyond the state boundaries.

Mr Modi's emphatic victory has sealed his reputation as one of the most formidable politicians of his generation and is likely to propel him into the national limelight as a contender not only for the post of the leader of his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but also a candidate for the post of India's prime minister in 2014, when national elections are due.

At the same time, the performance of the main opposition party, the Congress, was so disastrous that its state chief and the leader of the opposition, were both defeated by their BJP rivals.

Mr Modi, a political leader who made his way up the political hierarchy by working at the grass-roots level, remains a highly polarising figure. His critics view him as an antithesis of the very idea of a plural and secular India, an authoritarian leader who has systematically hollowed out the institutional fabric of the BJP in his state and a megalomaniac who has built a personality cult.

His supporters, on the other hand, see him as an embodiment of a new aspirational India where good governance and development are keys to winning elections. He is seen as an able administrator and a straight-talking politician who means business. Mr Modi is the first BJP chief minister to have a third successive win at a time when the party is desperately looking for decisive leadership. He has not only been able to deliver impressive economic growth in Gujarat, averaging about 10 per cent annually, but he has also managed to preserve his image as an incorruptible politician.

After being Gujarat's chief minister since 2001 and, with his latest win, once again delivering the state to the BJP with 115 seats in the 182-member assembly, Mr Modi's sights are now clearly on the national stage.

He was facing a number of challenges - senior state party leaders defecting and forming another outfit; agrarian disaffection following poor rains in parts of the state; criticism over providing fertile land to industrialists. But he overcame all of them to emerge victorious.

His response was to deliver a 45-minute victory speech in Hindi, rather than his native Gujarati, which he had used throughout the election campaign, to reach out to a wider national audience. To his wildly jubilant supporters, he said: "My work will not stop. I will not tire in my effort to fulfil your dreams of development."

His supporters now want him to go to New Delhi to stake a claim in national politics.

And that's where the real dilemma for Mr Modi and the BJP lies. The BJP leadership recognises that Mr Modi, especially after this decisive victory, can no longer be ignored at the national level. Yet the party would need allies, new and old, to form a coalition government after the next parliamentary election. Neither the BJP nor the Congress Party is in a position to get a clear parliamentary majority on its own.

A Modi-led BJP will find it very difficult to attract allies. His role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, which claimed the lives of over 1,000 Muslims, makes BJP's coalition partners who rely on Muslim votes nervous. Many regional parties, who are allied to the BJP, have openly expressed their reservation regarding Mr Modi and his brand of majoritarian politics. Moreover, the BJP is a house divided and Mr Modi has no dearth of detractors within his own party.

As if recognising his limitations, Mr Modi has tried to evolve over the last few years. He has reached out to the minorities by holding fasts all over the state. His focus has been on inclusive development as Gujarat's economy has emerged as one of the strongest in the country. A number of Muslim organisations supported Mr Modi during this election. And his campaign this time was largely focused on a development agenda and was free of divisive issues.

In his victory speech, Mr Modi suggested that if he had committed any "mistake," he would seek forgiveness from the people.

The last few years have brought a perceptible change in India, and even outside, in how Mr Modi is viewed. The United Kingdom has recently re-established its ties with the Modi government after ostracising him since 2002. The ambassadors of the EU countries will be meeting early next year to reassess their policy of no contact at the senior level with the Modi government. The US, however, continues to boycott Mr Modi; last month, 25 members of the US Congress sent a letter to the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in support of continuing the policy of denying him a US visa.

The external world notwithstanding, there is no ignoring the wily leader who is probably the most gifted politician in India today. The Congress has reasons to feel jittery. With all the baggage that Mr Modi carries with him, there still seems to be no comparison between him and the Congress Party's prime minister-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi. Mr Gandhi, whose only claim to leadership is his dynastic legacy, has so far demonstrated neither any administrative acumen nor political foresight. If 2014 is going to be a competition between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, Mr Gandhi's chances do not look all that bright at the moment.

But for the BJP candidate to triumph, Mr Modi will have to reinvent himself and become more acceptable to the India beyond Gujarat. Whatever his supporters' aspirations might be, India is not Gujarat. To emerge a pan-Indian leader, Mr Modi will need all his political acumen.

Meanwhile, the rest of India is still trying to come to terms with a political leader whose past continues to haunt his political aspirations for the future.

 

Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College London