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Modi Faces Uphill Battle to Be Liked


In India today, there are two competing images of Narendra Modi, the star player of India’s most powerful opposition party, the Hindu nationalist BJP. One is Modi the Muslim-hater, the man who was in charge when religious violence, inflamed by some of Modi’s close aides, swept across Gujarat in 2002. More than a thousand people, most of them Muslims, died in the conflagration. The other is Modi the former tea-stall boy, a lower caste, self-made man famous for keeping a punishing work schedule, for his unabashed ambition, and for his captivating public speaking. Now that India’s election season is officially under way, Indian voters—and the world—will be watching the campaign to see which Modi emerges.

Already we’re off to a bumpy start. Legislators from the BJP are being blamed for a deadly riot that left more than forty people dead and thousands displaced in Muzaffarnagar, a district in the huge—and hugely important—state of Uttar Pradesh. UP, as it’s known, is equal in population to France, Germany, and Spain combined. It sends 80 representatives to the lower house of India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha, nearly double the number sent by the next biggest state. Modi plans a “barrage” of rallies across UP over the next few months in which he will “bombard the key battleground state with a pro-development message” and try to capitalize on disaffection and distrust of the current state government, which is allied with the ruling Congress Party.

In UP and elsewhere, Modi’s most difficult task is to convince Muslims, who make up 13 percent of the country’s population, and secular Hindus to trust him. He has tempered his once-fiery anti-Muslim speeches and “hardly talks about religion at all these days,” Victor Mallet writes for the FT. Instead, he has sought to become “a charismatic preacher of a resurgent India,” as Gardiner Harris put it in the New York Times. Compared with the 80-year-old and “perennially disengaged” current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his potential successor, the privileged and inexperienced Rahul Gandhi, Modi has come to represent “a vision that millions mired in a sputtering economy find intoxicating.”

“He has,” Mallet continues, “what Mr Gandhi and most other Congress leaders noticeably lack: a sense of purpose.” It would be unwise to count Congress out just yet. But pay attention to Modi: his campaign will expose the characteristics and divisions within Indian society like never before. If his vision of India takes hold among voters, it could take America’s most important Asian ally into uncharted territory.

[Narendra Modi photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Federale

    You say anti-Muslim like that is a problem. Muslims ruined India, occupied it and murdered millions of Indians. Muslims attacked Bombay hotels and the Indian parliment, Muslims openly support terrorism and routinely attack those of other religions. Muslims are angry, brutish, and violent.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The way to win elections, isn’t to move to the center, but rather to excite your base, and then let your base drag their friends, family, and neighbors onto your side. Swing voters are by definition, weak, indecisive, peer pressure driven, principle-less, low information voters, who because they are followers, vote the way everyone else is voting.
    It looks like Modi excites his base, and because of this, he is likely going to win.

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