Indian court ruling boosts nationalist frontrunner for next government

The ruling by a Gujarat state court will likely add further momentum to Narendra Modi and his opposition Bharatiya Janata political party ahead of next year's national elections.

Saurabh Das/AP/File
Narendra Modi, leader of India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate for next year's national elections, is seen here at the party's office in New Delhi, India, Dec. 8. An Indian court on Dec. 26 rejected a petition seeking the prosecution of Modi in the killing of a former lawmaker and other Muslims during riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002.

A roundup of global reports

The man who may end up leading the world’s largest democracy next year won an important victory when an Indian state court turned down a request to prosecute him for deadly ethnic riots 11 years ago.

But Narendra Modi, who heads the main opposition Bharatiya Janata political party, now faces a new challenge from a government-ordered investigation into allegations that Mr. Modi’s top deputy oversaw spying against a woman.

The back-and-forth comes as Modi’s popularity as a strong-willed Hindu nationalist rises among India’s vast electorate, particularly among Hindus wary of the country’s Muslim minority, the second largest demographic group. With elections for the 543-seat Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, scheduled to be held by May, Modi and his party have momentum to take control from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party.

The BBC reported that the ruling by a court in Ahmedabad city rejected a petition filed by the widow of a Muslim member of parliament who was killed during the 2002 riots, during which Hindu mobs targeted Muslims in the northwestern state of Gujarat, which he led at the time. More than 1,000 people were killed, and Muslim leaders and critics have long accused Modi of not doing enough to stop the fighting.

Modi’s actions led the US to ban him from entering the country in 2005, a ban that remains in place.  

Reuters reports that the Gujarat court also cleared Modi of the most damaging allegations: That he had told senior officials to allow Hindu mobs to vent their anger against Muslims, who had sparked a deadly train fire that killed Hindu pilgrims. A special investigation ordered by India’s Supreme Court last year also cleared Modi of complicity in the violence.

The Times of India called Thursday’s court ruling a “moral victory” for Modi, and predicted that it would further his surging popularity among voters. The Deccan Herald newspaper, meanwhile, said the ruling would help Modi among moderate voters, who have been wary of his nationalist rhetoric.

In a post on his blog Friday, Modi expressed sadness for the rioting, one of India’s worst:  “I was shaken to the core. ‘Grief’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Misery’, ‘Pain’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Agony’ – mere words could not capture the absolute emptiness one felt on witnessing such inhumanity.

Under his leadership, Gujarat, which shares a border with India’s archrival Pakistan, has prospered, helping boost his public image across the nation. Earlier this month, Modi and the Bharatiya Janata party won four of five state elections over the ruling Congress Party, a fact that will give the BJP an edge in the 2014 national vote, political analyst Satish Misra told Bloomberg.

Support for Premier Singh and his Congress-led coalition has waned in recent years amid corruption scandals and sharply weakening economic growth.

The court’s decision came on the same day that the government ordered an investigation into reports that Modi’s chief deputy had coordinated with police officials in Gujarat to spy on a woman. The case, which the Indian media has dubbed “snoop-gate” or “stalk-gate,” has focused on whether the woman, reportedly a personal acquaintance of Modi’s, was monitored by police agents on the orders of Modi’s aide.

As the Hindu newspaper reported, “What should ordinarily have revolved around charges of violation of the privacy of the woman, and the misuse of official machinery for whimsical ends by ruling politicians in Gujarat, is now a full-blown political controversy."

Modi’s allies in the BJP have said any government-ordered investigation would be a witch hunt, aimed at weakening Modi in the general election.

In a post on the news website the Daily Beast, Shikha Dalmia, a US-based analyst and commentator, wrote that Modi’s popularity could be a harbinger for troubling and divisive policies:

“The main reason Modi attracts worshipful Hindu throngs is his open contempt for Congress’ ideology of secularism that, in his view, has balkanized the country by extending special favors to Muslims and other minorities to win their votes. That is not a baseless accusation. But what is Modi’s solution? More balkanization. He proudly calls himself not just a nationalist but a Hindu nationalist. His insult-of-choice for Congress is that it wears a ‘burqa of secularism’—a thinly veiled reminder to Hindus that Modi represents their—not Muslim—interests.”

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