Are India's English-speaking liberal elites about to face their most serious setback ever? With their public enemy No. 1, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi, poised to win national elections beginning April 7, it might seem like it.
But instead of feeling dejected, India's liberals should be quietly satisfied. Even though they may not stop the Gujarat chief minister's rise to national power, they have successfully forced him to shelve his party's most contentious policies, tone down his image as a hardliner and focus instead on economic development.
At the heart of the liberal case against Mr. Modi are the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that took place on his watch 12 years ago. About 1,000 people died, three-fourths of them Muslim, in retaliatory violence after a Muslim mob torched a train filled with Hindu pilgrims.
An investigation ordered by India's Supreme Court cleared Mr. Modi of culpability for the violence. Last December, a court upheld the verdict. But Mr. Modi's critics either tend to disbelieve the investigation or argue that it does nothing to wash away the moral stain of failing to prevent the carnage.
Liberals have a host of reasons to be concerned about Mr. Modi. He began his career in the BJP's sister organization, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps). Some of his most vocal fans gleefully support banning books they deem critical of Hinduism, and look the other way when, say, an enraged Hindu mob sacks a library or vandalizes an art gallery because of a perceived offense.
As chief minister of Gujarat, Mr. Modi himself banned books he deemed disrespectful of Mahatma Gandhi, or not disrespectful enough of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. And rather than answering tough questions from journalists, he seems to prefer softball interviews that shade into propaganda.
Over the past 12 years, India's English-language newspapers have published scores of editorials critical of Mr. Modi. Cable TV news programs frequently skewer him for posing a threat to "the idea of India," a vague formulation usually used as shorthand for India's brand of secularism, where the 150-million strong Muslim minority is entitled to special rights, including its own laws governing marriage, divorce and inheritance. If the BJP were sensitive to liberal concerns, it would have nominated someone more acceptable to both liberal elites and religious minorities, such as Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar or senior party leader Arun Jaitley.
Yet the BJP chose to nominate the Gujarat strongman—and it seems to be paying off. A clutch of polls predict that the BJP will deliver a drubbing to the ruling Congress Party and win about 200 seats, which would be the party's best performance ever. This would allow it to easily form a coalition to reach the 272 seats needed for a majority in the lower house of Parliament.
What does this mean for India? To Mr. Modi's more anxious critics, it suggests that the world's largest democracy is about to be squashed by Hindu nationalism. But take a closer look at Mr. Modi's evolution as a politician, and the opposite picture emerges. Over the years, India's small but influential group of liberal elites has forced him to tone down his rhetoric and focus on economic development as a way to win both legitimacy and votes.
In the 1990s, the BJP first rode to power by promising to build a grand Hindu temple at a site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. But in his campaign Mr. Modi has focused relentlessly on the economy. The Modi on whose watch Gujarat burned had a national approval rating in the low single digits. The Modi apparently headed for the prime minister's office helped turn his state into a byword for breakneck growth, reliable infrastructure and rapid integration with the global economy over the past decade. For anyone who has argued that India needs a modern conservative party that cares more about growth than battling the demons of medieval Muslim rule, this metamorphosis is striking and entirely welcome.
None of this is to say that liberal concerns about Mr. Modi are entirely misplaced. To a traditional elite more Westernized than most of its compatriots, Mr. Modi, a religious nationalist beloved of business and an aspirational middle class, might appear frightening. But to keep Mr. Modi focused on the economy and largely disinterested in fueling culture wars, India's liberals must first recognize their own success. They may have failed to stop Mr. Modi's rise, but they forced him to reinvent himself in order to rise.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He is on Twitter @dhume.