Critics Fault BJP's Candidate For Indian Prime Minister

The main opposition party in India has anointed Narendra Modi as its candidate for prime minister in next year's general election. Critics say Modi is a hardline Hindu nationalist who helped foment deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

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There is a chance that by next year, India will be led by a man with a reputation for being polarizing. India's main opposition party, the BJP, has chosen Narendra Modi to lead it in next year's election. He just completed his 12th year as the elected chief minister of the state of Gujarat, where he oversaw economic growth and periods of deadly inter-ethnic violence. As NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, many believe Modi is the man who can lead the BJP to victory over the ruling Congress Party.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The western state of Gujarat on the Indian Ocean is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. The Hindu ascetic known as the father of the nation preached harmony among India's many religions and wore a simple homespun cloth. Today, Gujarat's leading citizen, Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has a fondness for silk kurtas, or tunics, designer glasses and right-wing Hindu nationalism, which Modi portrays as harmless. India is a majority-Hindu state, and Modi told Reuters: I'm patriotic. I'm a nationalist. I'm a Hindu.

NARENDRA MODI: So, you can say, yes, I'm a good nationalist, because I'm a born Hindu. So nothing is wrong in it.

MCCARTHY: At age eight, Modi joined the militant Hindu group known by its acronym RSS. The RSS promotes an assertive Hindu identity for India, rather than the tolerant Hinduism of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1948, an RSS follower assassinated Gandhi. Modi, the son of a tea vendor, rose to prominence as a pro-business go-getter for Gujarat.

MODI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: In speeches, Modi extols Gujarati pride and the willingness of citizens to pay high taxes for what he calls good governance. He says that's why his state has grown faster than the national average.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINTING PRESS)

MCCARTHY: In an industrial sector of Gujarat's capital, Ahmedabad, printing presses churned out forms and stationery on a recent Saturday. Owner Pankaj Ghorawat looked all over India before setting up his business in Gujarat. He says taxes here are high, but the supply of state electricity is uninterrupted, something unheard of in most other states.

PANKAJ GHORAWAT: There's a whole lot of difference in what you see here and other places. Getting a water connection, getting electrical connection, getting licenses - you have systems in place.

MCCARTHY: When Modi lured Tata - India's second-biggest carmaker - to Gujarat, journalist Vinod Jose says the deal was not only lucrative for the car company...

VINOD JOSE: There's a huge tax incentive which Tata was given.

MCCARTHY: He says Modi also got the opportunity to tell big business...

JOSE: Come to me. I'll protect you. I'm your man.

MCCARTHY: Gujarat's entrepreneurial tradition long predates Modi, but businessman Amit Banthia says Modi made the government machinery accountable and won over key industrialists.

AMIT BANTHIA: After Modi took charge, he started acting like a CEO, and people thought that this person means business.

MCCARTHY: Modi's PR machine promotes Gujarat as India's top performer. But Indira Hirway, professor of economics at the Center for Development Alternatives in Ahmedabad, says nearly half of all children under five in Gujarat suffer malnutrition, and two-thirds of rural households lack toilets. Hirway says the Gujarat model is not very different from the rest of India.

INDIRA HIRWAY: But here, the ambitions of the government, they're going overboard when you want to be the fastest-growing state.

MCCARTHY: Neglecting social needs, says Hirway. Modi adopts an autocratic style.

HIRWAY: He thinks he knows everything. Dissent is something which he cannot tolerate. He feels quite threatened, insecure if somebody criticizes him.

MCCARTHY: No single event elicits more condemnation of Modi than the Hindu-Muslim violence of 2002 in Gujarat, just after he became chief minister. A deadly fire on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was blamed on Muslims. It ignited a wave of reprisal that killed more than a thousand people, mostly Muslims. Modi was accused of standing by as mobs of militant Hindus rampaged - a charge he vigorously denies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

MCCARTHY: Here in the burned-out remains of the Muslim enclave of Gulberg in Ahmedabad, a Hindu mob took revenge on February 28th, 2002. Sixty-nine Muslims were killed at this place, including Muslim leader Ehsan Jafri, whose case is still before the courts. The Muslim notable was hacked to death outside his gutted home, where I'm now standing. The area is now overgrown and deserted, as if forgotten, but the memories of this place are not forgotten. Roopa Mody - no relation to the chief minister - took refuge in Jafri's home, along with 60 others.

ROOPA MODY: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Rupa chokes back tears recalling how the house was torched. Her young son was frightened and worried about her safety. Making their escape, Rupa fell to the ground, her son's hand slipping from hers. She would never see her son again. In 2009, senior police officer Sanjiv Bhatt told a special investigating team of the supreme court that the night before the killing spree, Modi told the assembled senior police to, quote, "let the Hindus vent their anger."

SANJIV BHATT: He says that the policy of taking even-handed action won't work this time. You will have to allow the Hindus to vent out there anger. There is so much of anger, and that anger would have consumed them had it not been directed somewhere else. That was a very conscious political decision.

MCCARTHY: No other official has corroborated Bhatt's statement. An inquiry found no credible evidence to implicate Modi, who was cleared. The United States, however, was not as forgiving, consistently denying Modi a visa. Nirmala Sitharaman, a spokeswoman for Modi's BJP party, shrugs off U.S. disapproval.

NIRMALA SITHARAMAN: You already seen leaders coming in dealing with him who earlier hesitated to even talk to him. And, any case, Narendra Modi has not applied for a new U.S. visa, and therefore I can't see why this debate is being kept alive.

MCCARTHY: India's Central Bureau of Investigation, meanwhile, continues to probe police killings of people who were allegedly plotting to assassinate Modi. Projecting himself as a unifier, Modi told a recent rally in Delhi that when it comes to governing, there is only one religion: nation first, India first. Survivors of the carnage of 2002 are unconvinced. Roopa Mody points to the Hindu-Muslim rioting last month that swept through a village in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

MODY: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: If all of this happened in Gujarat and it's still happening in other places, imagine, she says, what will happen if Modi becomes prime minister. In highlighting economic development, Narendra Modi has changed the conversation in India. But his ability to lead such a religiously diverse country remains hotly debated. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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