In India, a Hindu nationalist rebuilds image with Muslim votes

Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi secured his fourth term as chief minister of India's Gujarat State, despite his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which some 1,000 Muslims were killed.

Amit Dave/Reuters
Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat State, gestures on the podium during a felicitation ceremony outside the party office in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad Dec. 20. Mr. Modi won his fourth consecutive term as chief minister in a landslide on Thursday, a victory that could launch the prime ministerial ambitions of one of the country's most popular but controversial leaders.

The Hindu nationalist leader of the western state of Gujarat, known for his alleged role in the 2002 riots in which 1,000 Muslims were killed, won his fourth consecutive term as chief minister in a landslide on Thursday. The victory puts the controversial figure on track to be a strong contender for prime minister of India in 2014.

Despite the controversy surrounding Chief Minister Narendra Modi, he played a critical role in putting Gujarat on a path of consistent economic growth. His win also marks a major defeat for the Congress party, which came in a distant second with 61 seats in the general assembly, compared with 118 seats for his Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

Mr. Modi stands out for many as a viable leader because of his recent record of good governance, development, and economic growth, coupled with the Indian Congress’s failure to effectively manage the country.

“It’s the vacuum of leadership that has India desiring a really strong leader who can take action and take this country forward,” says pollster Yahswant Deshmukh. “That’s why even a polarizing figure like Modi is being talked about and looked upon to give that kind of leadership.”

The BJP's victory is "a message to everyone that development and good governance triumph over divide and rule politics," Modi posted on his Twitter feed.

Modi’s image is still marred by the bloody Gujarat riots, which put the city on edge and raised minority tensions in the Hindu majority state. Many politicians within his own party refuse to work with him, fearing that doing so will taint their image. In 2005, the US State Department even denied him a visa.

But for a growing number of the more than 60 million people living in Gujarat, Modi’s record during his decade as chief minster has created a number of believers in his vision for the state – including Muslims.

Roughly 25 percent who cast their ballots for the BJP this election were Muslim, says Mr. Deshmukh, who polled more than 78,000 voters, including 7,000 Muslims as they exited voting booths across the state. That’s up from just 3 percent in 2007. While the majority of Muslims still vote for the Congress party, a growing number of young educated Muslims are opting for the BJP, says Deshmukh. They believe Modi is the most viable option for sustained growth and career opportunities in the state.

What’s not clear is how Modi’s success in Gujarat will translate to the rest of the country. Another question is whether he will be able to snag other minority voters, usually picked up by the Congress party.

Given Muslims' low literacy rates, low rate of employment in government jobs, and lagging per capita income across India, Sufi Saint Mehbubali Baba Saheb says life for the minority religious group is much better under Modi’s rule. A volunteer with the BJP, he points out that since the Gujarat riots, there has been no communal violence in the state. Some 10 percent of Muslims have government jobs and their per capita income is the highest in the country. 

But not everyone is convinced.

Despite Gujarat having the third-highest growth rate in the country, 40 percent of children are still malnourished, and hundreds of thousands of Muslims live in slums because they can’t find affordable housing.

“Modi has very little to offer to India’s villages, to its agriculture sector and to the very large constituencies that make up Indian politics,” says political analyst Ashish Nandy, adding that Modi’s constituency is the middle class. “While the middle class may make up a significant portion of the country, over two-thirds of the Indian population does not fall in that category. I think that will be more his undoing than being [known as] a master of inciting a blood bath.”

While Modi may have a long road ahead in his bid to be the next prime minister, Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says his success in these elections is a springboard into national politics and may force the United States to rethink how it handles its official relationship with him.

“It would certainly be seen as awkward if US politicians were not at least cordial to Modi,” says Mr. Vaishnav. “You might not see a major change right away, but behind close doors, it’s very likely the US will start making steps to warm relations.”

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