Time's Jyoti Thottam offers a curtain raiser for an upcoming interview with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, in memory of the ten-year anniversary of riots that killed upwards of a thousand people in Ahmedabad. Most Indians will have formed their opinions on the controversial leader – who has made Gujarat a business powerhouse, but has yet to live down accusations that he prevented police from taking speedy action to stop the riots. But Thottam hints she may strive to flesh out Modi's mostly enigmatic personality, and throw some cold water on the hopeful assessment of India's (left leaning) press.
“The interview will, I hope, help fill out the portraits that have already been drawn so ably in the Indian media this week about Modi, India’s most loved and hated politician,” Thottam writes. “Caravan magazine’s richly reported cover story about Modi is full of fascinating detail about his early life and his unstoppable, ruthless political ambition. There are also some emotionally devastating scenes from Gulburg Society, a housing complex in Ahmedabad where nearly 200 people were killed while taking shelter with a prominent Muslim politician.”
However, where those publications suggest that Modi will never overcome the public impression that he was responsible for the riots, or at least responsible for making them worse than they had to be, Thottam takes a more jaundiced view.
“I’m not so sure about that. India has, for better or for worse, always been able to bury horrific episodes of violence deep inside its collective psyche, and many of the Gujaratis I spoke to, including activists for victims of the 2002 violence, note that Modi would not be the first Indian politician to overcome links to past episodes of communal violence. Several of the Congress Party politicians who were accused in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, for example, went on to have long careers in politics. Modi’s rise represents, I think, another notion gaining ground in Indian politics — the idea that democracy is standing in the way of economic progress. According to this logic, India needs what Gujarat has — a CEO who rules with a strong hand.”
It's a hard pill to swallow. But I'll go with Thottam here. There are signs that Indians are less keen on the Hindu nationalist ideology of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Meanwhile, hardline anti-Muslim jingoism will never fly with the BJP's allies in the National Democratic Alliance, and even if the BJP had a dozen politicians as popular as Modi one can't imagine them ending the current era of coalition politics.
But the appeal of a guy who makes the trains run on time has never been so enduring as it is now in India. And that's just a wee bit scary.