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Narendra Modi: Wonder Governor, Hindu Nationalist, and India’s Next PM?

Few Indian politicians command as much global attention, or as much praise and scorn at home, as Narendra Modi, who last night won a third consecutive term as Gujarat’s chief minister. Lionized by his supporters for Gujarat’s “growth miracle” but hated by his enemies for his role in the bloody 2002 communal rioting and for threatening India’s pluralistic society, Modi is the commander of a well-oiled state government that transformed Gujarat into India’s most business-friendly state. With his focus on efficiency and no-nonsense governance, Modi is the top candidate to replace aging and listless Manmohan Singh as prime minister.

But is Modi’s famed political prowess just a bunch of smoke and mirrors? Is the Gujarat growth miracle a lie? These are questions many Indians will argue in the run up to the national elections in 2014. The international community should pay close attention, because what happens in India matters more for Asian and global geopolitics than almost  anywhere else.

Even Modi’s critics allow that he is responsible for constructing the Gujarat bureaucracy into a flexible, decentralized, and innovative government. He is, analysts say, a Wonder Administrator, “the messiah who will rid Indian politics of sloth, corruption, and petty identity politics.” Under Modi’s watch, his supporters argue, Gujarat has risen to become an economic powerhouse and a business paradise without rival in India.

But look closely and you’ll find that Gujarat’s economic miracle isn’t as special as it seems. Between 2004 and 2012 Gujarat’s GDP growth rate, at 10.1 percent, was far higher than the national average, but not India’s best (Maharashtra: 10.8 percent; Tamil Nadu: 10.3 percent). The average India watcher has heard far less over the past decade about the growth miracle in Tamil Nadu than the great Modi’s Gujarat.

Another part of economic growth is human development, and here Gujarat has a dismal record. True, poverty has dropped in the state in general, but pockets of terrible poverty remain, and the mortality rate for children under five years old lags far behind the rest of the country. Gujarat is 11th in poverty reduction among 20 major states. Nearly half its children are malnourished, and 40 percent of its urban households lack access to even basic sanitation services. And poverty among Muslims is far higher than among Hindus, which suggests that Modi’s policies play favorites.

Modi’s supporters argue that Gujarat’s high growth will allow the state to focus resources on human development, but so far that hasn’t happened. What seems clear is that Modi’s supporters want to draw attention to Gujarat’s growth rate and efficient governance model and ignore any indications that Gujarat’s people, whether Muslim or Hindu, are suffering as a result.

However his record is portrayed, Modi is in a position to put up a strong challenge for the prime minister post in 2014. The Congress Party is unpopular and struggling to hold together a coalition and achieve its policy goals. Modi will divide the nation (indeed he already does), if he runs for the top job in 2014.

Interesting times.

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