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India's Gujarat State May Signal Political Future
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India's Gujarat State May Signal Political Future


India's Gujarat State May Signal Political Future
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Voting is underway in a western Indian state that's considered one of the countries richest and fastest growing regions. The election in Gujarat is being closely watched for clues to the popularity of India's two main political parties; it is also focusing on Gujarat's chief minister. He was in charge in 2002 when that state witnessed the worst violence between Hindus and Muslims since India became independent six decades ago.

NPR's Philip Reeves is in Gujarat and joins us now.

This chief minister is something of a cult figure among Hindu nationalists, right?

PHILIP REEVES: Yes, he is. His name is Narendra Modi. And he is seen as a very much the sort of the poster boy of hard-line Hindu nationalism. His supporters see him as charismatic; they see him as decisive; he doesn't have a reputation of spending a lot of time consulting his party, he tends to be authoritarian in style; and they see him, in their view, as someone who stands up to Muslims who they tend to equate, not only with the minority in India that they see as disloyal to the country, but also they tend to equate them with terrorism.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember that in addition to being a Hindu-majority country, this is often considered one of the world's most populous Muslim countries. How important is this election to this two sides across the country?

REEVES: Well, it's of great importance, of course, to the Muslim minority, who in Gujarat, constitute about nine percent of the population. They haven't forgotten what happened in 2002 when anything between 1,200 and 2,500 people were killed, most of them Muslim, over a period of several months.

Many of them feel that justice hasn't been done with regard to the aftermath of that in terms of finding people who committed those offenses. They feel marginalized and also increasingly ghettoized.

If you wander around the cities of - the city of Ahmadabad, where I am, you'll find that Muslim and Hindu neighborhoods are now segregated.

INSKEEP: Is this Muslim-Hindu divide what the election is about for the voters?

REEVES: Well, actually, until now, Modi and his party, which is the BJP, the main opposition party in India, have concentrated on Gujarat's development. But recently, the issue of communalism sectarianism has come up, not only in remarks by Modi and the leader of congress on Ugandi, but also in an investigation by the magazine Tehelka which filmed police officers and politicians from Gujarat boasting about their role in the 2002 killings.

INSKEEP: You mentioned prosperity there. How prosperous is that city of Ahmadabad when you walk around?

REEVES: In many ways it's a very familiar Indian city, you know, with the usual rituals and small stalls selling tea and snacks and so on. But inserted amidst this, and quite strikingly, you see malls now, very decorated, shiny-looking constructions - it's very large too in some cases. And also very fashionable boutiques which sit oddly in the overall landscape. It's definitely changed over the last few years and is beginning to look more of a kind of Western-style city, on the surface at least. Under the surface, of course, these tensions still exist.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is talking with us from the western Indian state of Gujarat where voting has begun. Thanks very much, Philip.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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