Profile April 2009

India’s New Face

Meet Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and the brightest star in the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party. Under Modi, Gujarat has become an economic dynamo. But he also presided over India’s worst communal riots in decades, a 2002 slaughter that left almost 2,000 Muslims dead. Exploiting the insecurities and tensions stoked by India’s opening to the world, Modi has turned his state into a stronghold of Hindu extremism, shredding Gandhi’s vision of secular coexistence in the process. One day, he could be governing the world’s largest democracy.
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John Henry Claude Wilson/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

Photo by Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos

If the spirit of modern India has a geographic heartland it is Gujarat, the northwestern state bordering Sindh, in Pakistan. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the mahatma—Sanskrit for “great soul”—was a Gujarati, born in Porbandar, on the Arabian Sea, in 1869. The signal event of the Indian independence movement was the Salt March that Gandhi, joined by thousands, led in March 1930 across Gujarat, from the Sabarmati Ashram 241 miles south to Dandi, on the Gulf of Cambay. There Gandhi picked up a handful of salt on the beach and defied the British law prohibiting the collection or sale of salt by anyone but the colonial authorities. “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life. It is the only condiment of the poor,” Gandhi wrote. In a letter to the viceroy he argued, “I regard this tax to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint. As the independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil.”

Gandhi’s identification with the poor was intrinsic to his universalist philosophy. As he put it:

I do not believe in the doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number. It means in its nakedness that in order to achieve the supposed good of 51 per cent the interests of 49 per cent may be, or rather, should be sacrificed. It is a heartless doctrine and has done harm to humanity. The only real dignified human doctrine is the greatest good of all.

To protect the poor against the ravages of capitalism, which benefits only the majority rather than everyone, India would adopt socialism after independence. More to the point, although the Hindus would numerically dominate, they could not ignore or trample the rights of tens of millions of Muslims. Indeed, the “greatest good” necessitated that the conscience of the new nation and the ruling Congress Party be avowedly secular.

But the spirit of India has undergone an uneasy shift in this new era of rampant capitalism and of deadly ethnic and religious tensions, which arise partly as violent reactions against exactly the social homogenization that globalization engenders. Gujarat finds itself once again at the heart of what is roiling India, and what singularly menaces the country’s rise to “Great Global Power” status. India is home to 154 million Muslims, the third-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. India has arguably more to lose from extremist Islam than any other country in the world. Yet, as Dwijendra Tripathi, a historian based in Gujarat, lamented to me, “The Hindu-Muslim divide here is worse than at any time since the partition.” Not coincidentally, this rift is deepening even as Gujarat booms economically, with brand-new malls, multi plexes, highways, and private ports transforming it into a pulsing region-state athwart Indian Ocean trade routes.

Gujarat’s heightened religious tensions stem from “2002,” as it is simply called by everybody in Gujarat and the rest of India. In the local lexicon, that year has attained a symbolism perhaps as resilient as the force of “9/11” for Americans. It connotes an atrocity that will not die, a sectarian myth-in-the-making that constitutes a hideous rebuke to Gandhi’s Salt March. And at its epicenter stands another charismatic Gujarati, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, an icon of India’s economic growth and development, and a leading force in the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP.

What local human-rights groups label the “pogrom” began with the incineration of 58 Hindu train passengers on February 27, 2002, in Godhra, a town with a large Muslim population and a stop on the rail journey from Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh, in north-central India. The Muslims who reportedly started the fire had apparently been taunted by other Hindus who had passed through en route to Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, on their way to demonstrate for a Hindu temple to be built on the site of a demolished Mughal mosque. Recently installed as chief minister, Modi decreed February 28 a day of mourning, so that the passengers’ funerals could be held in downtown Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city. “It was a clear invitation to violence,” writes Edward Luce, the Financial Times correspondent in India, in his book, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. “The Muslim quarters of Ahmedabad and other cities in Gujarat turned into death traps as thousands of Hindu militants converged on them.” In the midst of the riots, Modi approvingly quoted Newton’s third law: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Mobs coalesced and Hindu men raped Muslim women, before pouring kerosene down their throats and the throats of their children, then setting them all on fire. Muslim men were forced to watch the ritualistic killings before they, too, were put to death. More than 400 women were raped; 2,000 people, overwhelmingly Muslim, murdered; and 200,000 more made homeless throughout the state.

The killers were dressed in saffron scarves and khaki shorts, the uniform of the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Organization of National Volunteers)—the umbrella group of the Hindu nationalist movement—and came armed with swords and gas cylinders, as well as electoral registers and computer printouts of addresses. The police stood by and observed the killings, and in some cases, according to Human Rights Watch, helped the rioters locate Muslim addresses. As for the 200,000 made homeless, the Gujarati state government provided very little in the way of relief, or compensation for the loss of life and businesses. Today, much of Ahmedabad’s Muslim population remains sequestered in squalid relief communities that Modi once called “baby-making factories.”

For all its carnage and horrors, 2002 also continues to echo because of Modi’s subsequent political success. In a remarkable three terms as chief minister, he has never apologized, has never demonstrated regret of any sort for 2002, and has become a hero to the Hindu nationalist movement. Furthermore, his machine-like efficiency, financial probity, and dynamic leadership of the government bureaucracy have made Gujarat a mecca for development, garnering more internal investment than any other state in India. Migrants, both Hindu and Muslim, from throughout India have been streaming into Gujarat to find work at its expanding factories.

There is an element of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore in Modi’s Gujarat. What’s more, Modi’s hypnotic oratory and theatrical flair have led some to compare him to Hitler. Certainly he is the most charismatic Indian political leader to emerge since Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.

Of course, Modi is neither Lee Kuan Yew nor Adolf Hitler. He is what he is, a new kind of hybrid politician—part CEO with prodigious management abilities, part rabble-rouser with a fierce ideological following—who is both impressive and disturbing in his own right. While Barack Obama may give hope to millions in the new century, a leader like Modi demonstrates how the century can also go very wrong when charismatic politicians use modern electoral tactics and technology to create and exploit social divisions, and then pursue their political and economic goals with cold bureaucratic efficiency. And here is why Modi is so important: although he is not his party’s standard-bearer going into this spring’s national elections, his popularity and influence in the BJP mean that he could one day be governing the world’s largest democracy.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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