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.

Modi’s office is on an upper floor of a massive, scabby-faced ministry building in Gandhinagar, the planned city of government workers north of Ahmedabad that is a monument to the flawed architectural schemes of formerly socialist India. Outside his door, Western businessmen and investors in expensive suits clustered after meetings with the chief minister. At 5 p.m. sharp, I was ushered in. Modi sat behind a desk that looked over a long committee table. He wore traditional paijama pants and a long, elegant brown kurta—ironically, the traditional dress of India imported by the Mughals. A row of pens lined his pocket. Rimless glasses rested on his face. He had a clipped and distinguished salt-and-pepper beard. His was a handsome, welcoming visage. A small stack of documents lay in front of him. He thrust them at me before I even asked my first question. “I heard you were interested in development here, so here are your answers.” What he gave me was not the usual promotional brochures, but long lists of sourced statistics put together by an aide. Gujarat had experienced 10.2 percent annual GDP growth since 2002. It had eight new universities. In recent years, almost half the new jobs created in India were in Gujarat. The state ranked first in poverty alleviation, first in electricity generation.

Was Modi trying to create another Singapore or Dubai in Gujarat, a place that would be, in a positive sense, distinct from the mother brand of India?, I asked him.

“No,” came the reply. “Singapore and Dubai are city-states. There can be many Singapores and Dubais here. We will have a Singapore in Kutch,” he said, waving his arm dismissively, “and GIFT [Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, a new high-tech city planned nearby] can be like Dubai. Gujarat as a whole will be like South Korea. Global commerce is in our blood,” he added, lifting his eyebrows for emphasis. There was a practiced theatricality about the way he talked. I could see how he moves crowds, or takes over boardrooms. I have met Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and both Bushes. At close range, Modi beats them all in charisma. Whenever he opened his mouth, he suddenly had real, mesmerizing presence.

His ambition seemed grandiose: South Korea is the world’s 13th-largest economy. Yet I could understand the comparison. Like Gujarat, South Korea is a vast peninsula open to major sea-lanes. It emerged as an industrialized, middle-class dynamo, not under democratic rule but under the benign authoritarianism of Park Chung Hee in the 1960s and ’70s. I mentioned this to Modi. He said he wasn’t interested in talking about politics, just development. Of course, politics represents freedom, and his momentary lack of interest in politics was not accidental. Modi’s entire governing style is antidemocratic, albeit quite effective, emphasizing reliance on a lean, stripped-down bureaucracy of which he has taken complete personal control, even as he has pushed his own political party to the sidelines, almost showing contempt for it.

Modi spoke to me in clipped, to-the-point phrases, with a didactic tone, about the cosmopolitan trading history of Gujarat going back 5,000 years, and how Parsis and others had come to its shores and been assimilated into the Hindu culture. I asked him about the contribution of the Muslims, who make up 11 percent of the state’s population. “We are a spiritual, god-fearing people,” he answered. “We are by and large vegetarians. Jainism and Buddhism impacted us positively. We want to create a Buddhist temple here to honor Buddha’s remains.” He then prompted me for my next question. He had nothing further to say. His terse responses spoke volumes: Muslims, of course, are meat-eaters.

I asked if he had any regrets about anything he had done or failed to do since becoming chief minister seven years earlier. Again, he had nothing to say. I then asked specifically if he regretted 2002. His answer: “There are so many views about that. Who am I to judge?” He said that a commission would decide about his role in the riots. In fact, a preliminary report by a commission from his own state bureaucracy had already absolved him of any wrongdoing.

“There was no Kalinga effect on Modi,” Hanif Lakdawala, a Muslim who runs a human-rights NGO, told me. He was referring to a war fought in the third century B.C. by the Mauryan Empire under King Ashoka against the kingdom of Kalinga on the eastern coast of India. Ashoka’s forces slew 100,000 civilians. Yet the slaughter left Ashoka with so much guilt that he dedicated his life thereafter to nonviolence and the peaceful development of his empire.

I wondered if Modi felt differently behind closed doors. By all accounts, after the riots, he manically dedicated himself to development, sleeping less than four hours every night, up at 5 a.m. to check his e-mail and read the local papers, visiting about 3,000 of the 7,000 villages in the state, and empowering the lowest reaches of its bureaucracy through his slogan, “Less government, more governance.” As Atul Tandan, director of the Mudra Institute of Communications, in Ahmedabad, told me, “You have to separate Modi’s political ideology from his management ability. Because there is not a hint of corruption about him, Modi is effective because people believe his decisions are only results-oriented.” Even many Muslims have come to respect Modi for cracking down on the gambling and criminal rackets that have infested some of their communities.

Nevertheless, there were so many ingenious ways Modi could have shown remorse for what happened in 2002 without directly admitting guilt, and he had expressed no interest in doing so. Perhaps it was a Machiavellian ploy: first, allow RSS forces to launch what most neutral observers said was a methodical killing spree in 2002, and then turn toward development after you have used violence to consolidate power and concentrate the minds of your enemies. But Machiavelli believed in using only the minimum amount of cruelty to attain a positive collective result, and thus any more cruelty than was absolutely necessary did not, as he put it, qualify as virtue.

“I am from a poor family,” Modi told me. “If I had become a teacher, it would have made my family happy. But I got involved in a national patriotic movement, the RSS, where one must sacrifice. As a pracharak, I was like a Hindu monk in a white dress. My Hindu philosophy: terrorism is the enemy of humanism.” I assumed he meant Islamic terrorism, which accounts for most large-scale violent attacks in India. He compared himself to Gandhi: “When the British ruled, so many fought for independence, and Gandhi turned this into a mass movement. I have converted economic development into a mass-movement psychology.” His words echoed through the empty room. “I have a toll-free number where callers hear my recorded voice and can make complaints against the government, and the relevant department must respond within a week.”

He rolled off his accomplishments: “modern roads, private railroads with double-decker containers, 50,000 kilometers of fiber-optic networks, 2,200 kilometers of gas pipelines, 1,400 kilometers of drinking-water pipelines to 7,000 villages, 24-hour uninterrupted power in rural areas, the first Indian state with private ports, a totally integrated coastal-development plan, two LNG [liquefied natural gas] terminals and two new ones coming on line.” Statistics and lists seemed to have a spellbinding effect on him. He quantified everything.

He mentioned, too, the plant to be built in Gujarat by Tata Motors, which will employ several thousand workers to produce the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, priced at $2,500. Luring Tata, perhaps India’s most prestigious company, to Gujarat had been a coup for Modi, and billboards around Ahmedabad proclaimed his accomplishment. “For so long, the whole coastal area had been subjugated to Mumbai,” he said. “But now the richness is coming back home to Gujarat. Gujarat will be the center point for east-west connectivity, from Africa to Indonesia.”

He is a very driven man, with no personal life, from what I gathered. He exuded power and control. How could he not have been implicated in the 2002 pogrom?, I asked myself.

A number of Hindus, all of them of the enlightened, cosmopolitan class, as well as Muslims and several foreign writers, told me that Modi’s personality contains an element of fascism. Sophia Khan, a human-rights worker, put it bluntly: “He’s a fascist man. We Muslims don’t exist for him. Our neighborhoods are called mini-Pakistans, while the Hindus live where the malls and multiplexes are.”

Is Modi a fascist? Although episodes in his political career and his role in the events of February 2002 suggest as much, the answer is, ultimately, no. “What makes Modi different from Hitler,” explained Prasad Chacko, who heads a local NGO, “is that while Hitler thought fascism the end result of political evolution, Modi knows that Hindutva is only a phase that cannot last, so now he focuses on development, not communal divides.” In fact, Modi has recently gone after the very Hindu nationalists who put him in power, arresting some members of a Hindu-chauvinist group. He can’t or won’t apologize for 2002. Therefore, showing that he is less extremist than other Hindu-firsters has become his method for gaining acceptance on the national stage, in advance of running for prime minister, according to Achyut Yagnik, a journalist and historian.

Modi is helped in his ambition by the general atmosphere of civilizational tension. Whether it be the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat posed by Iran, possible chaos in Pakistan, or Islamic terrorism in Kashmir and in India itself, the global situation reminds Hindus—the overwhelming majority of Indian voters—how much they have to fear from Muslim radicalism, and how much Modi signifies a bulwark against it: not through any specific act nowadays, but through the whole aura of his no-nonsense rule. As much as India fears Pakistan, it fears Pakistan’s collapse even more. The threat of Islamic anarchy in the region is perfectly suited to the further consolidation of Hindu nationalism, even as intercommunal tension represents, arguably, a more profound threat to the country than even the increasingly drastic shortage of water. What I encountered in interviews with victims of the 2002 violence was not so much radicalization, but alienation from India, evidenced by their withdrawal into their own communities, their reluctance to venture among Hindus.

The corresponding Hindu fear of Islam runs parallel with a more understated but palpable yearning for order. India’s rise as an economic and naval power has invited frustrating comparisons with China: whereas the authoritarian government in China can make things happen, development happens in India mainly in spite of the government. Hanif Lakdawala told me that, especially because of the nightmarish chaos of Indian cities, “there are some in this country ready to accept a fascist, or at least a very strong dictator.”

Not a fascist, in my opinion, but certainly someone like Modi. As Vimal Ambani, a prominent, liberal-minded Gujarati businessman, told me, “At the end of the day, Modi still offers the best model for governance in India.”

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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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