Is There a Disturbing Side to India’s New Prime Minister?

Business Insider
Analyzing the top news stories across the web
May 17 2014 8:12 AM

Does India’s New Prime Minister Have a Dark Side?

Narendra Modi speaks to supporters after his landslide victory in elections on May 16, 2014, in Vadodara, India.
Narendra Modi speaks to supporters after his landslide victory in elections on May 16, 2014, in Vadodara, India.

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have won India’s general election by the biggest margin in 30 years.

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Modi will be sworn in as the new prime minister of India on May 21.

Indian stocks surged to a record in India, with the Bombay Stock Exchange having risen as much as 6.15 percent, and the rupee also strengthened against the U.S. dollar. Modi has largely positioned himself as a champion of economic progress as India’s economic growth has languished to 10-year lows. And one can’t argue with the fact that Modi is a much more charismatic leader than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

While there’s much optimism around what a Modi win could mean for the Indian economy, there’s a lot to worry as well.

Modi is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist party, and has done a good job avoiding questions about his role in the deadly Gujarat Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002 that left more than 1,000 dead. Modi was chief minister of the state at the time. The riots began after 59 people were killed in a fire on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Godhra. Hindu mobs then turned on Muslims in Gujarat

In the aftermath, Modi has addressed the issue saying: “I feel sad about what happened but no guilt. And no court has come even close to establishing it.”

Modi only fanned the flames with his New York Times interview in 2002, in which he said his only regret was that he didn’t manage the media better. Following this, the U.S. imposed a visa ban on Modi and Britain announced a 10-year boycott.

The Supreme Court of India however has given him a “clean chit”—exonerating him of wrongdoing.

Modi has also called for a crackdown on illegal immigrants in India. He has accused West Bengal of being soft on illegal immigration and accused it of sheltering them in order to secure votes from minorities. Sujoy Dhar at LiveMint points out that Modi has said illegal immigrants should have their “bags packed” in case he comes to power. Modi’s rhetoric, and it has been argued that of the BJP, has shown an anti-Muslim bias.  

In a note published earlier this year, Nomura’s Alastair Newton points out that during a Feb. 23 rally in Assam, Modi called for Hindu migrants from Bangladesh to be assimilated back into India. He said non-Hindus should be sent back to their home nations. Modi’s rhetoric has raised concerns about what this could mean for neighborhood politics.

Indian publication LiveMint pointed to Modi’s decision to contest the seat in the holy city of Varanasi as a sign that he hasn’t abandoned his Hindu supremacist ideology: 

It is widely expected that Modi’s nomination from Varanasi will positively affect the outcome for the BJP in a number of other seats in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which are electorally important as together the two states send 120 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha. Further, the choice of Varanasi is also symbolic in nature which indicates that the party may not have completely abandoned the Hindutva ideology.

The Company Modi Keeps

It isn’t just Modi we need to watch, it’s also the company he keeps. Amit Shah, the general secretary of BJP and former minister of home affairs in Gujarat, is Modi’s closest confidante. In a profile for Caravan magazine, Poornima Joshi, identifies Shah’s sketchy past. From Joshi:

The Supreme Court has set up a special monitoring committee to probe twenty-two fake encounter deaths in Gujarat from 2002 to 2006; in four of these years, Shah was Gujarat’s home minister, and in charge of the state police. This includes the three cases in which Shah himself has been arrested and formally accused: the killings of the gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife, and the subsequent murder of a witness.

In 2004, Gujarat state police killed Ishrat Jahan and three of her acquaintances. Shah hasn’t been charged, though one of the victim’s father’s through a Gujarat high court has tried to get the court to arraign Shah. Two police officers accused in the case say the attack had the approval of Modi and Shah. In 2010, Shah, facing murder charges, was forced to resign.

In her profile, Joshi writes, “behind the public projection of Modi’s claims to be the source of unprecedented development in the state, it is believed that the two men dominated through intimidation and force.” For his part, Shah argues that he hasn’t been charged with anything and that it’s all part of a wider “political conspiracy” against him.

As Modi takes the helm of the world’s largest democracy, it’s important for Indians and the international community to watch Modi and Shah’s relationship unfolds.

Meanwhile Giriraj Singh, a BJP leader in the Indian state of Bihar, caused a storm by saying those who oppose Modi should find themselves a home in Pakistan, not India. A comment that the BJP distanced itself from, though Modi didn’t outright condemn.

The Economic Dream

Modi has come to power on the back of Gujarat’s economic success during his time as chief minister of the state. But many have pointed out Gujarat’s economy was doing well long before he came to power.

The strong sweep by Modi and his allies suggests there’s a chance that economic reforms won’t be stymied every step of the way, as they were during the Congress’s fractious rule.

But Modi’s seeming religious intolerance, his ambiguous stance on women’s issues, and the implications of his rule on Indian press freedom (especially as Hindu nationalists take to the internet to intimidate Modi critics) are cause for concern. Those celebrating Modi’s win should be cognizant of what his rule could mean for a democratic nation.

Mamta Badkar is a reporter at Business Insider.

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