x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Violence from the past that clouds India's politics today

Narendra Modi faces the normal range of political difficulties in his quest to rise to the top in India. But his toughest handicap may be something from his own past.

Last month the Gujarat High Court refused to grant a stay of proceedings to a senior Gujarat police officer accused of an alleged police atrocity in 1990. The officer, Sanjiv Bhatt, has continued to accuse the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, of allowing communal violence against Muslims.

But Mr Bhatt's continuing legal problems may have already served their purpose: casting doubt on Mr Modi's involvement in the 2002 Ahmadabad Riots - clashes between Muslims and Hindus that killed hundreds - and thereby smoothing the way for the politician's ambitions to lead India.

It's an open debate as to whether the chief minister instigated the case against the officer to defend his own reputation. Mr Modi seeks to boost his national standing as he looks to become the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) candidate for prime minister in the 2014 elections. To do that, extinguishing the notion that he condoned a pogrom in Gujarat is highly important.

A Modi candidacy raises huge questions, however, not only of his ability to lead the BJP to victory against the ruling Congress, but also of how India's strategic partners would deal with a prospective prime minister accused of permitting the massacre of some of the minority Muslim population.

On one hand, Mr Modi is the candidate best geared to take on Congress. Overall, his stewardship of Gujarat has been widely lauded by the middle class as well as foreign observers.

And there is little doubt he will win a third term as chief minister of Gujarat next year. His economic success in Gujarat ensures that outcome. Not only is industrial production growing at a double-digit rate, but agricultural growth is seven percentage points higher than the national average. Foreign observers have taken notice: in September the non-partisan US Congressional Research Service praised Mr Modi's economic stewardship and mentioned that he is a strong candidate for the 2014 national elections. Naturally, the BJP has been celebrating this report.

Moreover, there is an attempt under way to iron out the distrust between Mr Modi and the Muslim community. In September, the minister held a three-day fast for social and religious harmony. The media spread images of Muslims meeting with the chief minister and the event took on a show-like atmosphere.

Shahnawaz Hussain, a BJP MP from Gujarat, saw fit to explain that Muslims in Gujarat had signalled their acceptance of the Modi government by coming to the fast in huge numbers.

The Indian middle class and the wealthy Indian diaspora love the image of a centrist politician able to guarantee economic success. It fits well with the values of emergent and aggressively upwardly mobile Indians.

But the other side of the coin is that Mr Modi may have trouble actually winning a chance from the BJP to make a run at prime minister. The same Congressional Research Service report being lauded by the BJP also notes that Mr Modi is hindered by political factors and his inability to adequately deal with his reputation as a communalist.

Mr Modi faces problems both because of fractures within the BJP and on account of ruptures within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition that his party leads. He was a no-show at the recent BJP national executive meeting, which led to rumours of a rift between Modi and former BJP leader LK Advani.

As for the NDA coalition, Nitish Kumar, the current BJP-allied chief minister of Bihar and the other Indian leader lauded for guiding his province to impressive economic growth, has made clear his distaste for Mr Modi. During the 2010 Bihar assembly elections, Mr Kumar made it clear that he did not want Mr Modi entering his state.

Mr Modi's biggest challenge, however, is outside his party. A Modi candidacy would likely see concerted opposition from Muslims and liberal secular Indians. The BJP faced a similar bloc vote in the late 1990s, but overcame it by having a strong communal campaign centred on the destruction of the Babri Masjid. This time around, there is no stirring issue that will move the Hindu right.

Despite being the darling of the burgeoning Indian middle class, Mr Modi has a long way to go to bring the BJP back to power.

Moreover, when the BJP previously tried to win an election on the backs of the middle class in 2002 it was a dismal failure. Mr Modi seems to have noted that and adjusted his approach, which increases his threat to Congress, but leaves his success far from guaranteed.

This, however, might be a saving grace for India's strategic partners across the globe. While the BJP was celebrating the Congressional Research Service report, they ignored the US State Department's annual report on religious freedom, which ranks Gujarat among the worst states in India in terms of respecting religious freedoms and human rights.

The BJP also conveniently forgot that Mr Modi was denied a US visa due to American laws barring foreign government officials who may be complicit in violations against religious freedom.

According to off-the-record reports, US officials have indicated they would not prevent Mr Modi, if elected prime minister, from entering their country. Given the recent strategic partnership between the US and India, the last thing either side wants is a big fuss over a democratically elected leader of one of the world's emerging powers being blacklisted by the US. Maybe, then, it's a good thing for the world that Modi's candidacy is not a sure thing.

 

Talha Aquil is a financial services consultant and political risk analyst specialising in South Asia