Narendra Modi embodies the incongruities of Indian politics. The three-term Chief Minister of Gujarat has made his state perhaps the most prosperous in a country already tapped for greater and greater growth. Gujarat has been enjoying growth rates of 10% or more (compared with India's range of 8% to 9%), with some of the largest businesses in the country operating in its territory, providing the average Gujarati a mean income significantly higher than the national average. A tough administrator, Modi is, from all appearances, incorruptible; he lives modestly, even ascetically, choosing to be celibate to devote his energies and time to his political causes.
But to many Indians, Modi is evil. They say he has transformed Gujarat, the state that produced Mohandas Gandhi, into a tautly polarized polity. In 2002, it witnessed a six-week riot, the worst in the country's history, leaving more than 1,800 people dead, mostly Muslims. Modi has refused to apologize for the massacres. He continues to be as capable of delivering fiery Hindu-nationalist speeches as he is in delivering essential public services to his people; he has has ruthlessly exploited religious divisions to attain and hang on to power. With this combination of prosperity gospel and virulent religion-based nationalism, he has become the Hindu right wing's most wanted campaigner during the current elections. In the next, he could be the party's candidate for the Prime Minister of India.
Now, however, as the ballots continue to be cast in the world's largest exercise of democracy (polls finally close in mid-May, after four weeks of voting), India's Supreme Court has ordered an investigation into Modi's role in the brutal anti-Muslim riots. It is a dramatic move after seven years of Gujarati courts' dismissing hundreds of cases and acquitting the accused. It also provides ammunition for the opponents of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), where Modi is a superstar.
On Monday, the court ruled on a petition filed by Jakia Nasim Ahesan, the widow of Ehsan Jafri, a legislator belonging to the Congress Party who was killed along with 38 people by a mob at his home in Ahmadabad, Gujarat's largest city. Ahesan accused Modi and 62 others of hatching a "well-executed and sinister criminal conspiracy" to effect a "deliberate and intentional failure" of the state government to protect the life and property of its citizens. Says New Delhibased political analyst Amulya Ganguli: "Modi tried his best to scuttle the investigation some 2,000 cases were closed. But now the [Supreme Court] has reopened most of them, has had to transfer some of them outside of Gujarat. All this time, Modi himself had escaped the fire, but now, the law has caught up with him."
The BJP's archrival, the ruling Congress Party, immediately demanded Modi's resignation. But the BJP dismissed such calls, with general secretary Arun Jaitley claiming, "There is nothing against Modi," and that none of the investigations conducted by the Gujarati government had cited him. Jaitley also hinted at a conspiracy behind the timing of the court ruling, claiming that in the past, various reports targeting the BJP have been released at critical phases of elections. (Several key states have yet to vote.) Many observers point out, however, that most of these types of decisions actually came out in the BJP's favor. If the past is any indicator, Modi and the BJP may yet use this latest judicial blow to their advantage by painting Modi as a victim of a Congress-led secularist inquisition, designed to amass larger shares of the Hindu vote. (See pictures of the tempestuous ruling dynasty of India.)
Indeed, many pollsters believe that one of the incidents that worked to the BJP's advantage was Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi's speech at a 2007 rally in which she referred to Modi as a maut ka saudagar a merchant of death. Riding on outrage, Modi won re-election in Gujarat for a third term as Chief Minister. "Gujarat is one state that has been very touchy about Modi and anything written or spoken about him," says Mumbai-based poll analyst Jai Mrug, adding that Gandhi's remark rejuvenated the Hindu vote in the state in favor of the BJP. "The [electorate] will see the present court ruling as an attempt by the central government to malign Modi and reduce his chances of being Prime Minister in the next general elections."
The BJP's aim is not to protect its seats in Modi's Gujarat, according to Mrug. The party fully expects to win very comfortably there. "But the BJP would certainly try and make use of his charisma and his newfound status as a martyr in states that have not yet gone to the polls and where no leader of Modi's stature has yet appeared," Mrug says. These include Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana, among others. (Read about how India's young voters may change the country.)
Yet the BJP's gain to whatever extent may not translate easily into Modi's gain. Potential coalition partners are nervous about Modi, who has refused to apologize for the 2002 massacres. BJP allies like the Janata Dal (United) of Bihar, who want to reach out to Muslims, fear that such a stance will not go down well with the Indian electorate. Modi may be trying to make himself more acceptable to a wider audience. Since the Gujarat elections of 2007, Modi has been trying to paint himself as the able administrator who has brought progress and prosperity to Gujarat. The Supreme Court ruling will make it harder to keep that message pristine.