An Indian politician's past proves too hard to shake
NARENDRA Modi, 62, has been the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat for almost 12 years, and will almost certainly run for prime minister in next year's general elections. It was an incident of no small consequence, then, when Modi's invitation to deliver, via videoconference, the keynote address at the University of Pennsylvania's annual Wharton India Economic Forum was abruptly rescinded earlier this week, after Indian-American academics circulated a petition criticizing his human-rights record.
And therein lies a tale of two extremes. Gujarat under Modi has an impressive record of economic growth, infrastructure development and delivery of public goods such as primary education. It is also India's most popular industrial and investment destination, as a result of proactive initiatives such as Modi's Vibrant Gujarat, an annual summit for investors. Modi has become a youth icon, standing out recently in Indian political life for emphasizing growth and good governance over the politics of identity and welfarism.
A charismatic speaker, Modi now draws crowds beyond his usual base supporters in his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, whose politics lean toward overt or covert Hindu majoritarianism and other expedient positions. He is admired by large numbers among India's middle class and its youth, who see him as a decisive strongman in a climate of democratic dithering and conspicuous corruption. And he is praised by captains of industry, who appreciate Modi's unambiguously pro-business slant in a country where politicians are wary of aligning themselves with industry.
At a recent speech at a college in New Delhi, Modi was applauded by students when he said: "The 21st century belongs to us. We just need to rebrand our country." That message both soothes and inspires Indians, who no longer want to be seen as a people marked by poverty, underdevelopment, fatalism and dependence.
Except that it isn't just Gujarat, or India, that Modi has been trying to rebrand, but himself. Like Lady Macbeth, he has a "damned spot" on his hands -- one that he can never erase, only evade.
The blemish is the horrific religious strife that occurred in his state in February and March of 2002. Hundreds were killed and property worth millions of rupees was destroyed -- the worst advertisement possible for business. Modi was widely held responsible for failing to stanch the brutal violence visited on the state's Muslim population -- a perception he stoked by plotting a return to power in state elections later that year with a campaign marked by crude remarks against Muslims that bordered on hate speech. Modi soon realized he had painted himself into a corner. Over the next decade, he worked relentlessly to reinvent himself as a statesman focused not on "Hindus" and "Muslims" but on "governance" and "development" (he used that last word 20 times in a recent speech). He has been reprimanded by India's courts for his role in the 2002 violence and the obstruction of justice that followed, but has never yet been actually found guilty of criminal conspiracy or negligence. He hasn't been allowed to shake off the infamy of 2002, though, by India's many committed human-rights groups and by journalists, academics and political commentators.
And this was why Modi was made the subject of a petition protesting his invitation to deliver the speech at the Wharton forum, an annual event in its 18th year dedicated to discussing "India's evolution from an emerging nation to a prominent global economic power, and the key social, political and financial challenges which still stand in its way."
Written by three Indian-Americans at the University of Pennsylvania and signed by more than 100 other people, the petition said: We are outraged to learn that the Wharton India Economic Forum has invited Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, to be a keynote speaker at its 17th Economic Forum on March 23, 2013. This is the same politician who was refused a diplomatic visa by the United States State Department on March 18, 2005 on the ground that he, as Chief Minister, did nothing to prevent a series of orchestrated riots that targeted Muslims in Gujarat. The most conservative estimates are that over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, died in those riots. Thousands more were forced to leave their homes and businesses.