India's Voters Torn Over Politician

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In many ways, Gujarat is the best and worst of India. For years the state, which juts westward into the Arabian Sea, has been one of the most economically forward-looking regions in the country; its diamond-cutting and textile industries earn India hundreds of millions of dollars in exports. But Gujurat was also the scene of some of the worst sectarian violence since independence, when communal riots killed as many as 2,000 people — most of them Muslim — in 2002.

The figure at the center of the election, and perhaps the most controversial politician in India, is Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister. Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is hailed by his supporters as a modernizer who has built new roads, brought electricity and streetlights to villages and attracted new business to Gujarat. To his detractors, Modi will always be the man who stoked the sectarian tensions that made the 2002 riots possible. The riots followed a train car fire that killed dozens of Hindu pilgrims. Within hours of the blaze, later blamed on a cooking fire accident, Modi called it a "pre-planned act" against Hindus that the "culprits will have to pay for" — a position he sticks to today. Whatever the truth, the carnage that followed was terrible. In 2004, following an investigation into the incident, India's Supreme Court ruled that the chief minister was "a modern Nero who watched while Gujarat burned." A recent report by investigative magazine Tehelka went further, blaming the violence directly on senior BJP politicians and sympathetic police officers. One BJP politician, unaware that he was being recorded by a Tehelka reporter, allegedly said that Modi had told him that he and his colleagues had three days "to do whatever we wanted." Modi has dismissed the conclusions of the Tehelka story, though many of its specific charges remain unchallenged.

The current poll is, in many ways, a referendum on Modi and whether his modernization policies outweigh his reputation for ethnic demagoguery. Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Indian National Congress party, has spent days campaigning around the state and has accused Modi and his party of playing on communal tensions to win votes. The Gujarat government, she said, were "merchants of death" — a charge that Modi and his party say is outrageous. Gandhi's comment and one by Modi that seemed to endorse the controversial police killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a young Muslim man who was allegedly wrongly branded a terrorist, earned the ire of the Election Commission, who asked both leaders to explain how their comments did not contravene a code of conduct that politicians must adhere to during polling. Modi says his comments were a political response to Gandhi's criticism, though a petition against him was filed with the Supreme Court and will be heard on Wednesday.

State elections in India are usually decided on very different issues than national elections; the country is vast and in many ways fragmented. But with the ruling Congress Party suffering from a deadlock with its own Communist allies over a controversial nuclear deal with the U.S., the Gujarat vote will give Congress leaders a good idea of what popular support they still enjoy. If Congress does well — polls suggest that the election is too close to call — it would embolden the party to call a national poll early in 2008 to break the impasse with its coalition partners. If Congress does badly, it may try to hold on for another year.

Its main role, though, will be to assess the level of support for Modi. The chief minister has recently been hit by the defection to the Congress Party of several senior BJP members, who describe their former leader as autocratic and megalomaniacal. "He wants power and for that he will do anything," says Dhirubhai Gajera, one of the BJP rebels, who spent a recent Saturday afternoon campaigning for his seat in Surat, a city of some 4 million people. "He overstates what he has done for this state in terms of progress, and even where there has been progress it has gone to the rich, not the poor."

That's rubbish, says Atul Shah, a BJP member from the neighboring state of Maharashtra, who was in Surat to support his Gujarat colleagues in the days before the first round of voting on Tuesday Dec. 11. "Gujarat is a model state and Modi has proved himself 10 out of 10." Pravin Naik, head of the BJP's Surat branch, says the idea that Modi was part of communal tensions or violence is a "whole myth." "There has not been a single incident of communal violence since [the 2002 riots]," he says. "Narendra Modi is the only competent chief minister in India." The results of this month's poll will tell how many agree with him.