The polarizing chief minister of India’s booming state of Gujarat wants to be a contender for premier in 2014, analysts say, but he will struggle with the stigma of religious riots on his watch.
Gujarati Chief Minister Narendra Modi remains one of the country’s most controversial politicians, lauded for his pro--business approach, strong governance and intolerance of corruption, but criticized for his handling of 2002 anti-Muslim unrest.
He is accused of having turned a blind eye to the violence nine years ago that claimed up to 2,000 lives and of failing to bring to justice the perpetrators of the orgy of killing.
As part of his attempted transformation from a tarnished regional leader to a national statesman, Modi staged a three-day “harmony” fast which ended last week when he sipped juice given to him by Hindu, Muslim and Christian supporters.
He declared his fast had “united all of India” and, signaling his larger ambitions, declared: “India and Indians should dream for bigger things.”
The question is whether Modi can remould his appeal from a poster-boy for Hindu nationalism, known as Hindutva, into someone to be trusted to tackle India’s problems of slowing growth and corruption?
“A conservative section of the upper middle class are certainly in favor of him — those who like his economic reforms of Gujarat,” Daily News and Analysis political analyst and columnist Parsa Venkateshwar Rao said.
Modi had a boost this month when a US congressional research paper hailed his governance track record and called him the “likely” prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposition in the 2014 national elections.
The US Congressional Research Service report, prepared for US lawmakers, lauded Modi’s rule of Gujarat as “perhaps India’s best example of effective governance and impressive development.”
Modi came to power as chief minister of Gujarat in October 2001. He was elected for a third term in December 2007 and will face the electorate again in state polls next year.
The approving words were all the more remarkable because the US barred Modi from entry in 2005 over the riots, one of the worst episodes of religious blood-letting in independent India’s history.
The 61-year-old, whose stress on India’s traditional Hindu identity is at odds with the ruling federal Congress party’s secular credo, has always denied accusations he abetted the riots, but he still faces legal action.
His main pitch to national voters would be his track record in creating a thriving corporate climate in Gujarat in contrast to other parts of India where bureaucratic red tape has throttled development.
International investors such as auto giant Ford and domestic investors like Tata Motors have set up business in Gujarat which boasts strong infrastructure and 24-hour power in contrast to the blackouts that plague vast swathes of India.
“Imagine what will happen to the country if he leads the nation,” top business leader Mukesh Ambani, India’s wealthiest man, said at an investors’ conference in Gujarat, welcoming the prospect.
Gujarat’s annual 11 percent growth far outpaces the country’s expansion of around 8.5 percent.
Modi’s reputation as Gujarat’s “Mr Clean” has also raised his standing among many Indians weary of graft as the Congress national government has become mired in a seemingly endless list of scandals.
“He has not yet crossed the barrier of distrust, but he has come a long way,” said Subhash Agrawal, a political analyst and founder of India Focus, a private think tank,
“If he can export his model of governance, the ‘Gujarat miracle,’ to the rest of India, he could potentially be the BJP candidate in 2014 and if not in 2014, then in 2019,” Agrawal added.
Modi still faces potential rivals within the BJP, such as senior leaders Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, or fellow regional leader Nitish Kumar, who has transformed impoverished Bihar. A STAR News-Nielsen poll at the beginning of this month suggested the BJP would grab 32 percent of votes nationwide if elections were held now, while the ruling Congress would garner just 20 percent.
“I have called him a modern-day Hitler,” influential Indian media commentator Suhel Seth said.
“But the fact is that time has moved on,” he wrote in the Indian Express under the title: “Why India needs Narendra Modi.”
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