x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Will Gurajat’s leader help India to focus on economic gains?

The BJP's candidate to be Indian prime minister comes with a record of economic achievement but also for sectarianism. Which side will emerge stronger if he takes power?

Ask most Indians about Narendra Modi and you will get a clear response. There will be those, of course, who can’t stand the man but in his home state of Gujarat the answer you will most likely receive is: “He has helped us. There are fewer problems with him around.”

These assertions are supported by their votes. Mr Modi is the longest-serving chief minister in Gujarat’s history. His popularity due very largely to his economic policies. Under his control, Gujarat has seen industrial and agricultural growth, a more efficient bureaucracy and even reduced corruption. Now Mr Modi is making his pitch as the prime ministerial candidate for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP) in next year’s Indian general elections.

There is a different picture that can be painted, though. Many argue that he simply did not do enough to prevent the communal riots in his state in 2002 when hundreds of Muslims were killed over several days of extreme sectarian violence.

The question for India – and indeed the wider world – is whether the man who looks set to become India’s next prime minister will overcome his religious-nationalist bias. The possibility of him doing so hinges on the interplay of two wider themes: the balance between Mr Modi’s religious and economic narrative, and between his personal charisma and sense of fairness. The power of Mr Modi lies in his stories: stories about who Indians are, where they come from and where they’re going. One of these stories is taking over the others, and that is the story of the Hindu Right.

Mr Modi is a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist, and his secular credentials have been questioned. It is possible that if he is elected to power, in time his perceived anti-Muslim narrative will mutate into a governing pattern that India obeys.

India has many more Muslims than any other country in the world, with the exception of Indonesia and, very marginally, Pakistan. Muslims have played a dominant role in the history and evolution of India. It is also an extremely ethnically diverse nation. So it is unlikely that Mr Modi’s singular affiliation will have any plausibility, given the multiplicity of categories and groups to which Indians belong. To what extent Mr Modi can persuade others to adopt his identity-based thinking, and enhance the well-being and freedom of his followers, remains to be seen.

Recent emphasis in election campaigns on the success of his business policies and away from religion may be an attempt to switch strategies. And business success is key to integration. Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist who specialises in ethnic and religious conflicts in south Asia, argues that by developing business links across communal lines, ethnic violence is more controllable, and the possibility for confrontation is less likely to occur.

According to Prof Varshney, communally integrated business associations can serve as agents of peace by restraining politicians who seek to polarise Hindus and Muslims.

If the BJP wants to campaign on the economy and efficient government, Mr Modi is its best candidate. The party’s hope is that Gujarat’s leader would replicate the gains in his state in the rest of India. His investor-friendly reputation is clear: in the last 13 years, Gujarat has received $8.8 billion (Dh32.3b) in foreign direct investment. On a national level, increases in FDI and economic activity would undoubtedly have positive implications for regional trade, too.

A charismatic leader such as Mr Modi in power in New Delhi would be more able to confront the fiscal challenges and volatile political opinion that have proven to be a risk to India’s investment environment under the weakening premiership of Manmohan Singh.

Mr Modi’s government mirrors trends in India towards over-concentration of power in the hands of an individual. The reorganisation of the party system from state to central power, and the creation of a dominant leadership, is one of the key issues the BJP will have to tackle in the future if it is elected next year.

But no matter how popular or successful a Modi government is likely to be on the economic level, the doubt remains as to how he will handle relations with religious and ethnic minorities – and how they will respond to him and his party.

In order to handle fractious politics and public discontent, Mr Modi’s BJP must move away from short-term, state-driven policymaking. Instead, it is hoped that a shift in focus towards wider economic gains will translate to growth in India’s balance sheet, a fall in credit volatility and a strengthening of regional relationships.

Whether this hope becomes a reality, however, remains to be seen.

Nikita Malik is a researcher on South Asia and the Middle East

On Twitter: @nixmalik