An In­dian politi­cian's past proves too hard to shake

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Chan­dra­has Choud­hury

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.

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