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    South Asia
     Apr 6, 2012


Modi garlanded abroad, stained in India
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's efforts at an image makeover appear to be working - at least abroad. A political untouchable in India outside Gujarat, Modi appears to have impressed influential sections in the West.

Glowing accounts of his leadership qualities and governance have appeared in recent weeks in the Time magazine's Asia edition and on the New York-based Brookings Institution website. Earlier a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service - a bipartisan and independent research wing of the US Congress - trumpeted Modi's "impressive developmental successes" and "effective governance".

"What's certain is that during his 10 years in power in Gujarat, the state has become India's most industrialized and business-friendly territory, having largely escaped the land conflicts and

 

petty corruption that often paralyze growth elsewhere in the nation," Jyoti Thottam wrote in Time's cover story on Modi.

"Gujarat's economic performance is without peer in India, growing an average 10% each year for a decade," William J Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institution observed in an article that is effusive in its praise of Modi. This "is faster growth than almost any place on earth, including most of China", Antholis gasps in barely concealed admiration.

What is more, Time has nominated Modi, 62, for its "Most Influential People" list for 2012. As of April 4, Modi has managed to secure the second-largest number of votes in the online poll.

The vote of confidence that Modi is getting abroad has prompted jubilation among his supporters at home. Gujarat's main cities are awash with billboards congratulating Modi for his "accomplishment" of making it to the cover of Time magazine.

Interestingly, major publications in India have raked Modi over the coals in recent issues to mark the 10th anniversary of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. Like Time, Frontline magazine, a highly respected fortnightly from India, carried Modi on its cover. But it saw the past decade as "a decade of shame".

The puff pieces on Modi have annoyed his critics. "This is nothing but a public relations exercise. It is not an objective assessment of Modi's decade" as Gujarat's chief minister, noted social activist Teesta Setalvad pointed out.

Modi is easily one of India's most divisive figures. His supporters, who are largely hardline Hindus, hail his muscular nationalism, his "tough approach towards Muslims". Big business houses attribute Gujarat's vibrant economy to his chief executive officer-like efficiency.

Modi's critics describe him as an "Indian Hitler", the architect of the anti-Muslim pogrom that engulfed Gujarat in 2002. His government failed to prevent, indeed it incited and abetted violence against Muslims. While members of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its fraternal organizations led mobs attacking Muslims, Modi himself is reported to have instructed police and other officials to "let the Hindus vent their anger" against Muslims. Over a thousand people, mainly Muslim were killed in that pogrom.

Modi's political fortunes in Gujarat have grown remarkably over the past decade. He has won two assembly elections in a row. He is eyeing a larger role for himself now. He is pitching himself as the BJP prime ministerial candidate in general election 2014.

The problem is that his brand of Hindu nationalism is offensive to many Indians, prompting the BJP's allies and even other BJP leaders to regard him as a liability in election campaigns outside Gujarat. They prefer to maintain a distance from the controversial Modi.

Modi has been working assiduously to rebrand his image, going on a series of day-long fasts as part of a sadbhavana (communal harmony) mission that is aimed at projecting him as a champion of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation.

To many Indians, especially victims of the pogroms, the fasts are dishonest and farcical, a mockery of their suffering. But Time describes it as "an act of self-purification, humility and bridge building".

Even the claims of Gujarat's economic achievements under Modi are exaggerated, critics say. While some insist that growth figures are fudged, others point out that other states too have registered double digit growth rates over the past decade. There is therefore little to trumpet about Gujarat's economic achievements under Modi. Besides, Gujarat always had a vibrant economy even before Modi took over as chief minister. The state's successes, they insist, should be attributed to the entrepreneurial spirit of Gujaratis rather than to the skills of its present chief minister.

As for Modi's so-called "good governance", while his government might be making quick decisions on the industrial front, human development indicators in the state, which are an important measure of quality of governance, are hardly impressive.

According to the India Human Development Report 2011, in Gujarat 44.6% of children below the age of five suffer from malnutrition and 70% of the children suffer from anemia. Even states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are notorious for their poverty, corruption and poor governance, are doing better than Gujarat on child nutrition.

A robust campaign by the Coalition against Genocide, an umbrella organization of secular Indian-American groups opposed to Modi's politics, which included lobbying of US senators and State Department officials resulted in the US government not only denying the Gujarat chief minister a diplomatic visa in 2005 but also revoking his existing 10-year tourist/business visa.

Modi has sought to portray criticism of him as attacks on Gujarati pride. This has helped get him the support of the community abroad. Around 40% of all Indians in the US are Gujaratis. A very prosperous community, they have been lobbying hard to get that decision revoked. They have been helped in a big way by an American public relations agency, APCO Worldwide, which was hired in 2007 by the Modi government to polish up Modi's image.

That their efforts are yielding fruit is evident from the hosannas that are being sung in praise of Modi by American think-tanks and media. They are projecting Modi as prime ministerial material, not just an ordinary politician but a statesman, someone with vision and concern for global problems like climate change.

Concluding his laudatory piece on Modi, Antholis writes that he "came away [from his interview with the Gujarat chief minister] thinking that this was a man America needed to know better. He may never be able to move past his role in the 2002 riots. But he is a talented and effective political leader, and will continue pushing New Delhi and not following. He has successfully tackled some of India's toughest problems, but also has touched its most sensitive nerves. He is wrestling with major global challenges, with all the complexities that implies for a man with strong nationalist convictions. One thing is certain - he will continue to be a force in Indian politics."

Later this year, Gujarat will hold state assembly elections. He is likely to win that election. With a third straight win under his belt in Gujarat, Modi will focus on Delhi and the general elections in 2014.

Modi is still a political pariah in India, outside Gujarat. Many Indian voters are illiterate but they are hardly ignorant. They have shown remarkable levels of political shrewdness in the past in not being swept away by propaganda.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that Modi's growing circle of cheerleaders abroad will be able to convince the Indian voter that he is indeed prime ministerial material.

It will not be easy for Modi to wash away the stain of 2002. As Saba Naqvi concludes in an article in Outlook magazine, "Modi can perhaps examine his predicament from a philosophical, moral or literary viewpoint. He could ruminate over that quote of Lady Macbeth's who kept washing her hands. 'Out, damn'd spot! out, I say'!"

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at sudha98@hotmail.com

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