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.

As Hindu ideologue and innovative CEO of Company Gujarat, Modi in many ways embodies his state’s history: his character testifies to Gujarat’s vibrant, outward-looking entrepreneurial spirit and its hard-edged communalism, and his trajectory follows the larger trends that have brought the state, and the country, to this uneasy moment.

Gujarat’s vast seaboard—the longest in India—looks westward to the Middle East and Africa, and so Gujarat has been a land of trade and migration. During the age of British imperialism, Gujarati businessmen sold cloth to Yemenis and were paid in silver, which they then lent to English merchants, who bought Yemeni coffee, sold it, and repaid their lenders, so that the Gujarati businessmen made a double profit. In the 19th century, large Gujarati communities sprang up in British East Africa. Later, when America beckoned and loosened its visa restrictions, Gujaratis flooded to its shores, becoming, among other things, motel proprietors and Silicon Valley software tycoons.

Faith—both Hindu and Muslim—underpinned the business networking, providing a social and cultural framework. Thus have two devout, highly distinct ethnic and religious communities operated easily within Gujarat’s cosmopolitan framework. Even as the state leads India in electronic governance and indexes of economic freedom, it also has the tightest dietary restrictions; alcohol is prohibited in this land of Gandhi, and vegetarianism (partly the result of the religious influence of the Jains) is widespread. Indeed, Hindus in Gujarat negatively associate meat-eating with the late-medieval Mughals, the Muslim conquerors from Central Asia who were another critical factor shaping the Gujarati historical experience.

Gujarat’s post on a frontier zone of the subcontinent exposed the state to repeated Muslim invasions. Some of the worst depredations came at the hands of the Turco-Persian ruler Mahmud of Ghazni, who swept down from eastern Afghanistan and in 1025 destroyed the seaside Hindu temple of Somnath. During a trip to India last fall, whenever I mentioned the events of 2002 to Hindu nationalists, they would lecture me about the crimes of Mahmud of Ghazni. For these Hindus, the past is alive, as if it happened yesterday.

This combination of geography and history has made Gujarat fertile ground for Hindutva (Hindu-ness) and for the Hindu nationalist movement that first emerged in the 1920s and that has since given birth to a wide range of Hindu organizations, beginning, most notably, in 1925 with the RSS, a vast, volunteer-driven self-help corps. As members of the Hindu nationalist movement such as Vijay Chauthaiwale, a molecular biologist, told me, the RSS provided a “true Hindu voice lost by the pro-Muslim tilt of the Congress Party. Muslims invaded in earlier centuries. They conquered,” he told me. “We lost. The British conquered. We lost. We were a defeated society. We needed to come together as Hindus.”

Narendra Modi, who was born into a middle-caste family in Gujarat in 1950, joined an RSS-inspired student group, going on to become a pracharak—a “propagator,” or propagandist—for the RSS itself. Unmarried, the pracharaks live sparely, inspiring hundreds of workers while trying to remain faceless, in an effort to eliminate their own egos. The average pracharak serves only two or three years before marrying and resuming a normal life. Modi is unusual. He was a pracharak for close to a decade. In 1987, he joined the BJP, which had been founded in 1980 to advance Hindutva in the political sphere. One year later, he became the party’s state general secretary.

Modi entered the political arena just as larger forces were propelling the BJP forward. Information technology enabled standardized and ideologized versions of Hinduism and Islam to emerge: just as Shiites became united across the Middle East, Hindus became united across India, and the same for Sunni Muslims. Meanwhile, the spread of education made people aware of their own histories, supplying them with grievances that they never had before. “The Hindu poor are blissfully ignorant of Mahmud of Ghazni. It is the middle class that now knows this history,” explained one local human-rights worker. That is why Hindu nationalism is strongest not among the poor and uneducated, but among the professional classes: scientists, software engineers, lawyers, and so on. In the eyes of this new, right-wing cadre of middle- and upper-middle-class Hindus, India was a civilization before it was a state, and while the state has had to compromise with minorities, the civilization originally was unpolluted (purely Hindu, that is)—even if the truth is far more complex.

The economic reforms of the 1990s, which brought India truly into the vanguard of globalization, aggravated these Hindu-chauvinistic tendencies. Because the socialistic nation-state of Hindus and Muslims had become a thing of the past, both groups needed a strengthened communal identity to anchor them inside an insipid world civilization. This need has been especially apparent among Gujaratis living overseas: even as successful immigrants in the United States, they have engaged in a search for roots that they have transmitted back to relatives at home.

Against this backdrop, Modi has gone from strength to strength. Promoted in 1995 to become the BJP’s national secretary, he helped orchestrate the party’s rise to power. After taking over the chief ministership in the wake of a disastrous earthquake, in 2001, he has been reelected twice, becoming Gujarat’s longest-serving leader. During his visits to villages, pregnant women regularly touch his feet so that their newborn will be like him. He is so honest that gifts for him are regularly deposited in the state treasury—a far cry from the corruption and nepotism that are so routine in Indian government. Even those Indians who despise Modi’s politics acknowledge his skill and power.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington, D.C.

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