Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
‘Controversial’ is the diplomatic euphemism usually applied to Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat and now likely Prime Ministerial candidate for the opposition BJP. He will, in all likelihood face off against a Congress party ruled at least from behind the scenes by the Gandhi dynasty, if not yet formally headed by its latest favoured son, Rahul.
Congress, like the American Democrats, is the party the outside world prefers. It defends India’s secular multicultural identity, and under Manmohan Singh, the economist turned Prime Minister, abandoned the party’s traditional socialism, implementing market-friendly economic reforms. If the last two administrations haven’t quite lived up to expectations (measures to allow foreign supermarkets, currently forbidden, never passed; infrastructure remains terrible; and the courts, as Vodafone found out, byzantine), it’s hard to see any other government of a country so large, fractious and decentralised as India, where governing coalitions have only the superficial appearance of being anchored to a major national bloc but instead owe more to improbable flying machines as designed by Heath Robinson, doing much better.
Mr Modi’s easiest task is to present himself as the man who can confound such expectations. His positive appeal rests on his record at Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, where he has built a reputation for probity, efficiency and decisiveness (a rare combination: nobody disputes Mr Singh’s probity, but decisive he is not). This, he claims, is the secret to his state’s economic growth. Now, having been anointed campaign manager for the BJP he promises to take his brand of governance national.
This may precisely where he comes unstuck. It’s far from clear whether, to put it mildly, he has appeal beyond India’s strongly Hindu “cow belt” of northern states. His reputation is so toxic that he has been denied entry to the United States, accused of at best of failing to stop and at worst of complicity in communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 in which over a thousand people, mostly Muslims died. Moreover, his development model has been called into question. As well as reporting indifferent education results, India’s respected Planning Commission (admittedly under control of the national government) has chosen to highlight research concluding that Gujarat’s education is poor and its sex ratio is one of the most lop-sided in the country. This is far from an isolated incident. His opponents intend to give no quarter, painting him as a sectarian extremist. One Indian Minister, also the government’s official spokesman has even compared him to Hitler:
“In the decade of 30's, [the] German corporate sector had similar fascination with a gentleman who was at the helm of affairs there. The implications for the world at large were disastrous.”
These attacks could damage Mr Modi. The BJP is, traditionally, weak in southern India and, unsurprisingly, among Muslims. The success of his campaign may depend on whether he can counter these attacks and win coalition allies for his party. Yet, apologising for his stewardship during the 2001 riots, and embarking on shift towards the centre could well limit the enthusiasm of his base. He would hardly be the first political leader to face this particular problem.
Moreover, his style exacerbates his bind. In order to build a national alliance he may have to enter into precisely the kind of murky deals he has accused his of opponents of making. And, his boasting about efficiency and decisiveness could backfire. Many Indians see him as an extremist. They could well fear a decisive fanatic unswayable by grubby political compromise rather more than they would a showboater whose inflammatory rhetoric concealed a pragmatic cast of mind.
Finally, he must overcome those worries about his “effects on the world at large.” Though Congress have yet to run a 'Daisy' ad featuring Mr Modi, it is embarrassing enough that he cannot enter the United States, and would be tailed by protests everywhere he goes, he is also rather too good a fit with Shinzo Abe of Japan and a more assertive Chinese leadership.
To survive what will doubtless be the scrutiny of a rambunctious election campaign, Mr Modi will have to persuade Indians that he will be a more conciliatory and centrist national leader than he was Chief Minister in Gujarat.