Muslims and a reinvented Modi
Modi has repositioned himself as a politician concerned with 21st century jobs rather than 16th century grudges.

Reuters

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), shows his ink-marked finger to his supporters after casting his vote at a polling station during the seventh phase of India's general election in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad April 30, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • Modi has repositioned himself as a politician concerned with 21st century jobs rather than 16th century grudges.

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  • For Mr. Modi's numerous critics, he was at worst complicit in the violence, and at best negligent.

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  • Gujarat is among India's fastest growing states, and its Muslims are among the country's most prosperous.

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What would a victory by Narendra Modi, the current front-runner in the race to become India's next prime minister, mean for the country's 150-million strong Muslim minority?

Anything involving the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party candidate elicits sharply divergent responses, but this is the most emotional question. For Mr. Modi's foes, he is quite simply an anti-Muslim bigot who represents the greatest threat to India's religious pluralism since independence in 1947. By contrast, Mr. Modi's army of fans views him as a principled defender of equality for all faiths, and a welcome change from politicians who pander to fundamentalist Muslims in the name of Indian secularism.

The truth, not surprisingly, lies somewhere between. For the most part, Mr. Modi has run a disciplined campaign that eschews Muslim-baiting and instead focuses on economic growth, inflation, and jobs. At the same time, the Gujarat chief minister remains the politician most loathed and feared by Muslims, who blame him for riots that erupted on his watch in Gujarat 12 years ago.

Viewed through the narrow prism of the Muslim community's concerns, Mr. Modi remains a troubling choice to lead India. But apply an economic lens to the country as a whole—not just the Muslim minority that makes up 14% of the country's 1.2 billion people—and the choices look different. For many Indians fed up with slow growth and galloping graft, Mr. Modi is simply the most viable choice on offer.

By now the reasons to fear Mr. Modi's rise are well known. For the most part, they date to 2002, when a Muslim mob in Gujarat incinerated 59 Hindu pilgrims in a train compartment. More than 1,000 people died in the retaliatory riots that followed, about three-fourths of them Muslim.

For Mr. Modi's numerous critics, he was at worst complicit in the violence, and at best negligent. He has refused to explicitly apologize for the violence, a fact that has burnished his image as a Hindu hardliner.

Modi supporters tend to dismiss the 2002 riots issue. They point to a lengthy Supreme Court ordered investigation concluded two years ago that found no evidence that Mr. Modi was culpable for the riots. It helps that since 2002 Gujarat has enjoyed arguably its longest unbroken stretch of peace and prosperity. It is among India's fastest growing states, and its Muslims are among the country's most prosperous. Only about one in 10 Gujarati Muslims live below the poverty line, compared to one in four nationwide.

Moreover, the argument goes, Mr. Modi has bent over backward to reinvent himself. When Islamist terrorists bombed one of his campaign rallies in October, killing six people and wounding dozens, Mr. Modi responded by urging Hindus and Muslims to unite against their common enemy—poverty. He has praised his state's Muslim businessmen for their entrepreneurial spirit, and repeatedly reassured interviewers that he will ensure that no Indian suffers discrimination for his faith.

A clutch of Muslim notables, including the author and journalist M. J. Akbar, has responded to his moderate turn by endorsing Mr. Modi. As for apologizing, Mr. Modi says he refuses to do so because a mere apology wouldn't suffice to absolve him. "Hang me if I am guilty," is his stock response.

These arguments don't appear to be playing too well with Muslims, who remain the only major demographic group that favors the ruling left-of-center Congress Party over the BJP. Conventional wisdom suggests that in many places the community will vote for whichever candidate is best placed to defeat the BJP. Muslims constitute at least 10% of the electorate in about 200 of the 543 seats in India's directly elected lower house of parliament, which can often make the difference between victory and defeat in India's first-past-the-post system.

The Center for the Study of Developing Societies estimates that only about one in eight Muslims (13%) will vote for the BJP this year. To be sure, this marks a dramatic improvement over the 2009 elections, when only 3% of Muslims picked the party. Nonetheless, it's hard to deny that Mr. Modi's critics have a point. If your top concern is electing a prime minister who is broadly acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims, then you could hardly find a less suitable candidate than Mr. Modi.

However, that's not how most Indians view this election. For them it's a referendum on an incumbent government that presided over a stagnant economy and staggering corruption scandals. The International Monetary Fund expects India's economy to grow at 5.1% this year, down from its high of 10.5% four years ago. In boardrooms and foreign ministries around the world, India has gone from being seen as a rising Asian colossus to a perpetually bumbling also-ran.

If the polls are to be believed, halting this backsliding and punishing those guilty of robbing the exchequer is what Indian voters seek most badly. In an ideal world, they would have the option of backing a candidate supported equally by Hindus and Muslims to perform these tasks. In the real world, they appear to have decided that the best man for the job is Mr. Modi. This is why, a little more than two weeks from now, he will likely be sworn in as India's 14th prime minister.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He tweets @dhume.

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