New Delhi, Apr 8: Few deny that Narendra Modi, the son of a tea seller tipped to be India’s next prime minister, has overcome formidable obstacles. Almost everything else about him is bitterly contested.
The rise of one of India’s most polarising figures even split his own party, where worries about his controversial past and abrasive personality meant he had to overcome heavy internal dissent.
The 63-year-old son of low-caste parents from western Gujarat state is seen as a hardliner within the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist opposition last in power 1999-2004.
A yoga-lover and strict vegetarian described as a “monk with a mission” in a recent biography, Modi is steeped in the ideology of Hindu nationalism, having joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a boy.
Committed to defending Hindu culture, the RSS has been banned twice by the government, and its cadres often harbour antagonistic views towards India’s 140 million Muslims, the country’s largest religious minority.
While he has campaigned on a platform of good governance and economic revival, Modi’s links to anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people died, are his biggest handicap.
He was chief minister when riots broke out and, although he has never been found guilty of wrongdoing, the failure of his administration to control the violence left a legacy of distrust and suspicion.
His refusal to apologise and his decision to appoint a woman to his cabinet who was later found guilty of orchestrating some of the worst of the killing added to the rancour.
The United States and European powers boycotted him for more than a decade.
“Those asking for an apology wanted the apology to be an act of confession,” senior BJP leaderArun Jaitley told foreign journalists on Monday as he reminded them that Modi had been investigated and cleared.
Jaitley said he believed Indians had moved on from the issue and were now focussing on Modi’s record as a business-friendly administrator during his 13 years running Gujarat as chief minister.
He has many fans in corporate India – notably the country’s richest family, the Ambanis – and foreign behemoths such as Ford have praised his government as efficient and clean.
Between 2005 and 2012, Gujarat recorded average annual growth rates of 10.13 percent, the second-highest pace among large or medium-sized states, official data shows.
“We can meet principal secretaries and ministers easily to discuss issues related to industry,” Gujarati pharmaceuticals businesswoman Bhagyesh Soneji told AFP on a recent visit to the state.
But critics note a lack of progress on human development indicators during Modi’s rule, say his cosy relationship with industrialists amounts to crony capitalism, and also scoff at his governance record.
The state failed to appoint an anti-corruption ombudsman for nearly a decade until 2013, and one of his closest aides, Amit Shah, faces murder and extortion charges dating to his time as home minister.
His “strong” leadership is simply a result of his ruthless centralisation of power which tips into authoritarianism whenever he is challenged, they say.
Shah faces a possible judicial investigation after telling supporters Friday to see the election as “revenge” against a “government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus”.
Guarded personal life
On the campaign trial, in speeches often laden with sarcasm and barbs for the ruling Gandhi political dynasty, Modi has promised to clean up the corruption-wracked federal government.
A talented orator and master of communication – he once appeared as a hologram at simultaneous political rallies – he speaks in often coarse Hindi, shunning the English language of the Delhi elite.
Parts of his past and much of his present personal life remain a mystery. He walked away from a child marriage arranged by his parents, and he lives alone at his residence in Gujarat, taking great pride in a large collection of birds which he feeds every day.
As a young adult, he is believed to have wandered in the Himalayas in a sort of personal journey of discovery, returning to plunge into the RSS and politics in which he earned an early reputation as a formidable organiser.