Narendra Modi has divided India. The next question is whether he will now conquer it.
On Tuesday, Mr. Modi was sworn in for his third term as chief minister of the prosperous state of Gujarat – a remarkable achievement in a country where politicians are almost universally viewed as liars and thieves and are seldom reelected. The event heralded his arrival as a figure of national import and cemented his status as the most polarizing politician in India.
To supporters, he represents the promise of Indian politics – showing that government can work when it takes a tough line on corruption and follows sound economic policy. To critics, he embodies the worst of India's past and present – winning elections by inflaming anti-Muslim hatred among his Hindu constituents.
Both have elements of truth, say political analysts here. But for India as a whole, Modi's victory marks a moment of maturation more than retrogression, they argue. His communal rhetoric would not work in other parts of India. But his ability to portray himself as the trustworthy steward of Gujarat's economic growth – and the apparent success of this strategy – is unprecedented.
To political leaders in New Delhi and beyond, it suggests that, as the benefits of the Indian economic boom slowly spread, they might be able to seek reelection on a record of accomplishment, rather than relying on caste and religion.
"Past elections have suggested that good governance does not translate into votes," says Yashwant Deshmukh, an election analyst in New Delhi. "In this election, people connected it directly to the leader and are giving a second mandate to someone who is seen to have delivered."
Next job: prime minister?
The sheer shock of someone as controversial as Modi winning a second term has been enough to vault him into the conversation about potential candidates for prime minister in 2009. The decisiveness of the vote – with his party winning 55 more seats than its closest opposition – has only added to the momentum. "Today, Gujarat. Tomorrow, New Delhi," has been the mantra of recent days.
But success in Gujarat does not equal success in other parts of India, experts say. Of greatest concern is Modi's strong adherence to Hindutva – the Hindu-first ideology of his party, the Bharat Janata Party (BJP), disparaged by critics as anti-Muslim.
Modi continues to be shadowed by allegations, most recently in an investigative report by the reputable magazine Tehelka, that he did nothing to stop – or may have even sanctioned – riots that broke out in Gujarat after a train of Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in 2002. Thousands of Muslims were killed and tortured in revenge during the riots, leading the head of the opposition party, Sonia Gandhi, to label the leaders of Gujarat "merchants of death," during the recent campaign.
The demographics and character of Gujarat make it particularly susceptible to religion-baiting, experts say. Hindu-Muslim tensions in Gujarat are perhaps greater than in any other part of India, yet the relatively small Muslim population – about 8 percent – means they can be ignored politically. That is not true in other major states, where politicians have to take account of the Muslim vote.
Moreover, India is enjoying a period of relative communal calm – due in large part to the horrors of the 2002 riots and a desire not to see them repeated. Such sectarianism still strikes a dissonant chord at the moment.
"There's no way you could play the communal card the way it was played in Gujarat," says Rajeev Bhargava, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "These conditions are not present in the rest of the country."
The early analysis from this election, however, suggests that it was Modi's talk of economic development – not his sectarian rhetoric – that carried the day. In the areas most motivated by Hindu-Muslim tensions – the areas that propelled Modi to victory in 2002 – Modi's BJP actually lost 20 seats. However, in other areas, where development and leadership were likely to play a bigger role, he gained 10 seats.
"The last election in 2002 was to a large extent communal," says G.V.L. Narasima Rao, a political analyst at Development and Research Services, a strategic consultancy in New Delhi. "What pulled voters this time was credible leadership."
Religion, caste usual vote-getters
In a country where political power is most often achieved and maintained by doling out sops to the castes and classes connected with each candidate, the notion of building an impartial record on which to run is revolutionary.
Yet, again, Gujarat's peculiar demographics played a key role. As one of the most prosperous states – since long before Modi arrived – Gujarat is more urbanized and middle class than other Indian states. So while politics elsewhere is dominated by basic issues of poverty, in Gujarat "the middle class has reached a critical mass that will vote for things like good governance," says Mr. Deshmukh.
It is unclear whether the rest of India has reached this critical mass yet. The most recent general elections in 2004 suggest not. The BJP was replaced by Ms. Gandhi's Congress Party, which stressed the need to spread India's wealth to the poor.
But statistics suggest that other states are urbanizing and the middle class is growing. In that way, Gujarat could be a glimpse of the future.
"If you have a good leader and a good agenda, people will back you," says Mr. Rao. "This is a very good message."