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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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