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.
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.

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.

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.”

Of course, Modi’s record since 2002 has not been perfect. Because of 2002, he has been denied a visa to the United States, and this stigma has hurt foreign investment, even as Gujarat has become the prime destination for domestic deal-making. Despite all the infrastructure projects, Gujarat still ranks low on scales of human development in India: malnutrition afflicts almost half of the children younger than 5, three-quarters of the women suffer from anemia, and two-thirds of the people are literate—barely above the national average.

In fact, what truly prevents Modi from taking the grand leap of his imagination—that is, remaking Gujarat into a kind of antiseptic global entrepôt, like Singapore and Dubai—is the ball-and-chain reality of the Indian landscape itself. Take Ahmedabad, encased in tear-inducing smog, jammed with wailing motorbikes and auto rickshaws, its broken sidewalks punctuated by stray cows and beggars. Founded in 1411 by Ahmed Shah of the Gujarat sultanate, the city was something of a playground for internationally renowned architects in the 1950s, when the Western elite placed newly independent India on a pedestal as the hope of humanity. (Le Corbusier designed the Textile Mills Association Building, and Louis Kahn the Indian Institute of Management.) But with the exception of a few gems, Ahmedabad, with a population of 4.5 million, remains weighed down by the same affliction that ails other Indian cities: little of architectural note or beauty among a handful of truly magnificent medieval Muslim monuments and the mishmash of steel-and-glass Dubai-style dwellings of the newly rich.

India is 37 percent urban. Within the next two decades it will be 50 percent so. Bimal Patel, a local architect and urban planner, explained that the real governing challenge of India’s leaders will be to make cities like Ahmedabad more livable and efficient. Under Modi, a new park-and-waterfront project, designed by Patel, is rising along six miles of the Sabarmati River, which runs through Ahmedabad. For the most part, though, the chief minister has avoided the local politics of this and other Gujarati cities.

Modi has also done nothing about the communal cantons that have sprung up under his rule. Now Ahmedabad’s old walled city is one of the only areas where Muslims—who make up 9 percent of the city’s population—and Hindus can really mix. The most poignant scene I came across during two weeks of wandering around Ahmedabad was at the Sarkhej Roza, the 15th-century mosque-and-tomb complex dedicated to Sheikh Ahmed Khattu, the spiritual adviser to Ahmed Shah. Amid the medieval domes and balconies overlooking a water tank, families picnicked, young couples whispered, children played ball, and young men attended prayer meetings. The architecture, with its elegant stucco and grillwork, blended Islamic and Hindu styles in a composite known as Indo-Saracenic. But at least until the park-and-waterfront project is completed, there is no corresponding mixing of peoples in Ahmedabad today: the crowd at the Sarkhej Roza was exclusively Muslim.

For 10 hours, I traveled by bus and car from Ahmedabad south to the coast at Diu, the southernmost point of Gujarat’s Kathiawar Peninsula, the site of Portuguese monuments that have particular relevance to the larger Indian story.

We drove along broken roads through a never-ending series of hovels, past creaking and dusty carts and the shanties and lean-tos of burlap and rusty corrugated iron that define rural India. On this journey through Gujarat, though, I found paved roads in many places, and running water and electricity just about everywhere. As primitive as the scenes looked, I knew from journeys in poorer Indian states like Bihar and West Bengal that much progress had been made. Still, South Korea? No, not for a few decades at the very least. India could be a great regional power and a pivotal state, but it is not likely to reach the level of development of the East Asian tiger economies.

Diu, a key strategic base for Portugal’s Indian Ocean Empire, had been captured from the Ottoman Turks in 1535. The sea gently knocked at the ramparts of the Portuguese citadel, mustard- and lead-colored after centuries of wear. Weeds crept between the stones, wild pigs wandered about, and groups of young men loudly ambled along the stoneworks, seemingly unaware of the significance of this immense curiosity, topped at its highest point by a lonely white cross. The massive Portuguese churches, with their colossal white Gothic facades, stood equally forlorn, their walls faded and leprous. You could actually see and hear the plaster falling at the close wing-beats of the pigeons. Only a few hundred years old, these dilapidated monuments are more like relics from far-back antiquity, so divorced do they seem from the local environment.

As empires rise and fall, only their ideas can remain, adapted to the needs of the people they once ruled. The Portuguese, given only to plunder and exploitation, brought no ideas save for their Catholic religion, which sank little root among Hindus and Muslims. And so these ruins are merely sad and, after a manner, beautiful. The British, by contrast, brought tangible development, ports and railways, that created the basis for a modern state. More important, they brought the framework for parliamentary democracy that Indians, who already possessed indigenous traditions of heterodoxy and pluralism, were able to fit to their own needs. Indeed, the very Hindu pantheon, with its many gods rather than one, works toward the realization that competing truths are what enable freedom. Thus, the British, despite all their flaws, advanced an ideal of Indian greatness. And that greatness, as enlightened Indians will tell you, is impossible to achieve without a moral component.

For as the influence of an economically burgeoning India now seeps both westward and eastward, to the Iranian plateau and to the Gulf of Thailand (the borders of viceregal India and its shadow zones a hundred years ago), it can grow only as a force of communal coexistence, a force that rests on India’s strengths as the world’s largest democracy. India, in other words, despite its flashy economic growth, will be nothing but another gravely troubled developing nation if it can’t maintain a minimum of domestic harmony. Mercifully, the forces of Indian democracy have already survived 60 years of turmoil, attested to by the stability of coalition governments following the era of Congress Party rule. These forces appear sufficiently grounded either to reject Modi at the national level or to contain his worst impulses as he moves—as many expect he will—from Gandhinagar to New Delhi. After all, the churches and bastions in Diu are ruins not because they represent an idea that failed but because they represent no idea at all, whereas India has been an idea since Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930. Either Modi will fit his managerial genius to the service of that idea, or he will stay where he is. Hindus elsewhere in India are less communal-minded than those in Gujarat, and that will be his dilemma.

Living history: the Hindu temple at Somnath, one of the most sacred in India, was sacked by a Muslim conqueror in 1025.


But in Gujarat, at least, peace will not come easy. From Diu I hired a car and drove two hours westward along the coast to Somnath, site of the Hindu temple destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni, as well as by other invaders, and rebuilt for the seventh time starting in 1947.

This temple, with its massive pale-ocher shikhara (tower) and assemblage of domes, sits at the edge of a vast seascape glazed over with heat. The coiled and writhing cosmic scenes on its facade are so complex that they create the sculptural equivalent of infinity. The day I was there, prayer blasted from loudspeakers. It was a madhouse on account of the full moon. Hundreds of worshippers checked their bags at a ratty cloak stand and left their shoes in scattered piles. Signs warned that no mobile phones or other electronic devices would be permitted inside, but I knew better. I put my BlackBerry in my cargo pocket, not trusting it to the mild chaos of the cloak stand, and expecting the usual lackadaisical developing-world frisk. I then joined the long single-file line to enter the temple. At the entrance, I was savagely searched, and my BlackBerry was discovered. I was rightly yelled at, and summoned back to the cloak stand. “Muslim terrorism,” one worshipper alerted me. From the cloak stand I got back into line and entered the temple.

Semidarkness enveloped me as worshippers kissed the flower-bedecked idol of a cow. The air was suffocating, as packed-together bodies approached the womb-chamber. I felt as if I were trespassing on a mystery. Though nonbelievers were officially welcomed, I knew that I was outside the boundaries of the single organism of the crowd—the philosopher Elias Canetti’s word for a large group of people who abandon their individuality in favor of an intoxicating collective symbol. This sanctum was a pulsating vortex of faith. Some dropped to their hands and knees and prayed on the stone floor. I’d had the same extreme and cloistered sensation at two of the holiest sites of Catholicism and Shiism: the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, Poland; and the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq (where I had to sneak in with a busload of visiting Turkish businessmen).

You couldn’t help but understand Hindu feelings about Muslim depredations of this temple, one of India’s 12 Jyotirlingas, or places with “signs of light” that symbolize the god Shiva. And yet, as emotions crackled like electricity all around me, I also couldn’t help but think of what Hanif Lakdawala had asked me, in a plea as much as a question: “What can we poor Muslims of today do about Mahmud of Ghazni?”

Presented by

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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