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.

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?”

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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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