Decoding Narendra Modi
A prime ministerial candidate who evokes deeper devotion and fiercer opposition than any other politician in India.

Reuters

India's Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi (2nd L) hugs Rajnath Singh (2nd R), president of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after Modi was crowned as the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP at the party headquarters in New Delhi September 13, 2013.

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  • @dhume: In choosing to frame India's next election in moral rather than policy terms, the BJP has opted for a high-stakes gamble.

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  • @dhume discusses what the contrasting narratives on Modi mean for BJP and India

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  • It is important to understand why Modi evokes both deeper devotion and fiercer opposition than any other politician in the country.

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To gauge the political prospects of Narendra Modi—announced Friday as the official prime ministerial candidate of India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party for next year's general election—you don't need to know his views on the fiscal deficit, relations with China or the death penalty. But it is important to understand why he evokes both deeper devotion and fiercer opposition than any other politician in the country.

Fans and foes alike view the 62-year-old three-term Gujarat chief minister in starkly moral terms. For his legion of admirers, Mr. Modi's elevation represents the triumph of merit, honesty and hard work. To his equally numerous detractors, he stands for naked ambition, self-aggrandizement and antipathy toward Muslims.

The powerful chord Mr. Modi strikes in core BJP supporters, as well as much of the middle class, explains the inevitability of the party's decision to make him its standard bearer. The equally strong antipathy Mr. Modi evokes—especially among Muslims, a section of liberal Hindus and many foreigners—suggests his path to the prime minister's office will be anything but easy.

To be sure, part of Mr. Modi's national appeal, especially a reputation for dynamic leadership, rests on his record as the business-savvy administrator of India's most economically vibrant state. But an ability to attract investors and whip bureaucrats into shape doesn't explain the BJP leader's emergence as party kingpin or, if you believe the polls, the most popular politician in India.

For Mr. Modi's fans—including many of his 2.2 million followers on Twitter—he represents a profound departure from politics as usual. In a nation where leaders often hand down parliamentary constituencies to their children like a family heirloom, Mr. Modi has pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps. His first job: helping an uncle run a tea stall in a small town in Gujarat.

Mr. Modi toiled for years in obscurity as a backroom organizer for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), the Hindu-nationalist group whose volunteers power the BJP at the grassroots. He didn't hold elected office before the party parachuted him into the chief minister's chair in 2001.

As a bachelor, Mr. Modi lacks the usual baggage of sticky-fingered children or their spouses out to make a quick buck. Over the years, he has acquired a reputation for a punishing work schedule and frugal habits, which Indians tend to equate with probity in public life. Despite belonging to a so-called lower caste himself, Mr. Modi has resisted the temptation to use it for political gain. And though an undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment ran through his first successful state election campaign in 2002, he has since pivoted to talk of development. These days his speeches tend to focus on crop yields, cattle care and fashion exports.

The moral case against Mr. Modi hinges on anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat 11 years ago, after a Muslim mob torched 58 Hindu pilgrims on a train. More than 1,000 people died in the ensuing violence, about three-fourths of them Muslim. Mr. Modi says he tried to stem the riots, and a Supreme Court-ordered investigation cleared him of wrongdoing. But many Indians continue to see his failure to stop the violence as evidence of culpability at worst and criminal negligence at best. For Mr. Modi's critics, his repackaging as an icon of development merely masks an unsavory agenda—to marginalize India's 176 million Muslims.

What do these contrasting narratives mean for the BJP and India? For one, Mr. Modi's moral stature makes him the unquestioned leader of the BJP. Nobody else in the party can generate a crowd of thousands, some wearing masks in his likeness, chanting "PM, PM, PM." Or inspire software engineers and management consultants to quit high-paid jobs to work for his campaign. Or ensure that even the most mundane speech attracts wall-to-wall coverage. The BJP has chosen its toughest, most charismatic general to lead the troops into electoral battle.

But the nature of Mr. Modi's appeal also carries its own limitations. Under a less polarizing figure—say, senior leader Arun Jaitley or Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar—the BJP could have focused on highlighting the corruption scandals and economic mismanagement that have plagued an unpopular government. Instead, the election will now become as much a national referendum on Mr. Modi as on the incumbent Manmohan Singh government.

Many fence-sitters will doubtless be drawn to the new BJP leader's compelling biography and promise of a strong India brimming with economic opportunity. But many others will recoil from the idea of electing someone synonymous with 21st-century India's worst bout of religious violence. (The United States has denied Mr. Modi a visa since 2005.)

In choosing to frame India's next election in moral rather than policy terms, the BJP has opted for a high-stakes gamble.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume.

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