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Modi’s political journey

Srinivas MazumdaruMay 16, 2014

After eight months of intense campaigning, one of India's most polarizing politicians, the opposition BJP's Narendra Modi, is on course to become the country's next prime minister. DW takes a look at his political rise.

- Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, attends the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) national convention in New Delhi in this February 27, 2014 file photo. Narendra Modi's critics depict him as an autocratic Hindu supremacist who would tyrannize the country's minority Muslims if his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.
Image: Reuters

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, won an absolute majority in India's parliamentary polls, according to early vote counts. If confirmed, this would be the first parliamentary majority by a single party in 30 years.

The poll, which was staggered over five weeks, showed the BJP on track to win the 272 seats needed for a parliamentary majority, while the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi dynasty, was headed for its worst-ever defeat.

The BJP's victory represents the pinnacle of Modi's political career thus far. It is the career of a man admired by many for his administrative ability and business-friendly policies, but regarded by his critics as an intolerant figure whose tenure as chief minister of Gujarat witnessed one of India's worst religious riots.

The 2002 riots

On February 27, 2002 a train carrying dozens of Hindu activists among others caught fire under mysterious circumstances in the western Indian state of Gujarat resulting in 58 deaths. The incident, coupled with reports that Muslim mobs were involved in the train burning, triggered one of the deadliest outbreaks of religious violence in India in recent history, leaving around 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus dead and several thousand injured.

Youths burn vehicles and debris in the streets of Ahmadabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2002. (Photo: AP)
Modi has been accused of abetting the 2002 communal riotsImage: AP

The communal riots tarnished the image of Modi's who has been governing his native state of Gujarat since 2001. Born to lower middle-class parents, Modi pursued a Master's degree in political science and worked for many years as a propagandist for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist outfit, before entering the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the late 1980s.

After rising through the party ranks, Modi became the Chief Minister of Gujarat in October 2001, just months before the communal violence erupted. His administration has ever since been accused of abetting the 2002 riots and failing to take measures to protect minorities.

The allegations provided ammunition to Modi's opponents and various NGOs to brand him as "anti-Muslim" and a "Hindu nationalist," thus making him one of India's most controversial and divisive politicians. In 2012, Maya Kodnani, a former minister in Modi's cabinet was convicted for her role in the attacks and sentenced to 28 years in prison.

The Chief Minister, however, has always denied the allegations made against him. His supporters argue that he has been unfairly maligned and an investigation by an India's Supreme Court-appointed team cleared him of any wrongdoing in the riots, Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

Yet this hasn't been enough to silence his critics, who continue to blame him for the deadly religious riots.

Good economics

Over the past decade, Modi's peculiar governing style has also prompted strong reactions. Dubbed "authoritarian" by his detractors, his supporters hail it as "decisive," crediting the controversial politician for making his state one of India's fastest-growing with double-digit growth rates over the past decade.

An Indian worker sprays water onto panels of India's first 1MW canal-top solar power plant at Chandrasan village of Mehsana district, some 45 kms from Ahmedabad on World Earth Day, April 22, 2012. This solar power plant on a 750 metre stretch of the Sanand Branch Canal of Sardar Sarovar Project will generate some 1.6 million units of clean electricity per year and will also prevent evaporation of some 90 lakh litres of water per year from the canal.
Gujarat's continued strong performance has helped boost Modi's image across IndiaImage: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images

Jagdish Bhagwati, professor of Economics and Law at Columbia University, says the Chief Minister has presided over the state's impressive economic record. "Modi has attracted a great deal of investment to Gujarat, both domestic and foreign, because he has offered a corruption-free environment and is reputed to take quick decisions on granting licenses to invest and manufacture, whereas in almost every other Indian State the delays are pathetic," the economist told DW.

Indeed, Gujarat received around 8.8 billion USD in foreign direct investment (FDI) between 2000 and 2013, amounting to nearly 4 percent of India's total FDI during this period, according to government data.

Critics argue that economic growth in Gujarat has not transformed into human and social development as it has focused solely on physical infrastructure and not on education and health. But economist Bhagwati says that Modi's record on poverty reduction and on social indicators like literacy and electrification of villages is remarkable.

In 2011-12, the state's GDP grew at 8.5 percent, while India's economy expanded between 5-6 percent. The state's continued strong performance has helped boost the politician's image across the country.

A popular leader

To Modi's advantage, a slew of high-profile corruption scandals have contributed to the growing disenchantment of the public with the ruling Congress Party-led coalition government.

Dr. S. Chandrasekharan, director of the India-based think tank South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), says that Modi is popular with segments of Indian population such as the middle classes, traders and students among others.

Furthermore, he has been endorsed by many industrialists for the post of prime minister. Analyst Vaishnav explains business leaders hope that Modi will be able to scale up the pro-growth and investment policies he championed in Gujarat to the all-India level and plug the leadership vacuum they believe the nation has suffered over the past several years."

Against this backdrop, Modi was named last September the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in the April-May general elections.

Foreign relations

In the aftermath of the 2002 riots, many countries in the West such as Germany, the UK, and the US cut ties with Modi and barred him from setting foot on their territory citing his role in the communal violence. The US Congress even passed a resolution in 2005 condemning him for promoting Nazi ideology and "racial hatred."

The situation changed in recent years, however, with several countries ending their boycott of the BJP leader and deciding to initiate government-level discussions. But the United States, which revoked Modi's visa in 2005, is yet to end its travel restrictions, although Washington recently initiated diplomatic contact with the Indian leader, with the former US Ambassador Nancy Powell meeting Modi.

Symbolbild Visa USA - Symbolbild zum Thema Visa und USA. #3634707 © icholakov - Fotolia.com
Modi's visa to the US was revoked in the aftermath of the communal violenceImage: icholakov/Fotolia

Obama administration has also declared that it would be willing to work with Modi, should the BJP win the vote. "We will work with the leader of the world's largest democracy. There is no question about that."

Apart from occasional references, Modi has so far not revealed much about his intentions on the foreign policy front. However, it will not be long before his way of dealing with issues, particularly concerning the relations with Pakistan and China, will be known.