For Modi's supporters, these qualities -- decisiveness and honesty -- set him apart from most politicians and from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated Indian public life since independence from Britain in 1947. Here's proof that good governance can emerge from the murk of Indian politics. Here is an earthy and effective alternative to Congress President Sonia Gandhi's to-the-manor-born 42-year-old son, Rahul, widely seen as his party's prime minister in waiting. As a bachelor, Modi carries no burden of sticky-fingered children, or their corner-cutting spouses, out to make a quick buck from proximity to power.
Biography notwithstanding, the heart of Modi's claim to higher office lies in the so-called Gujarat miracle. The state has averaged double-digit growth rates over much of Modi's 11-year rule. With only 5 percent of India's population, last year Gujarat accounted for 16 percent of the country's manufacturing and 22 percent of its exports. The Economist calls it India's Guangdong.
While it's impossible to quantify Modi's contribution to his state's economic performance, over the years he has earned a reputation for problem-solving. While much of India continues to suffer from potholed roads and daily brownouts, Gujarat offers investors modern highways and a reliable power supply. Many of India's tycoons have lavished praise on Modi for running an administration responsive to their needs. In 2008, Modi famously persuaded Ratan Tata to build the Nano, the world's cheapest car, in Gujarat after Tata Motors ran into land-acquisition troubles in West Bengal. Every two years, Indian and global businesses line up at the Vibrant Gujarat summit to pledge billions of dollars to the state in India's most high-profile investor gathering. Foreign companies that have set up shop in Gujarat under Modi, or announced plans to do so, include Abbott, Bombardier, Ford, Peugeot, and Suzuki.
Ten years of peace and a booming economy have gained Modi a measure of international acceptance outside business circles as well. A spate of essays and articles in the international press this year has focused on Modi the manager rather than on the riots. In October, Britain ended its post-riots boycott of Gujarat by sending its high commissioner in New Delhi to confer with Modi. However, the United States, which denied Modi a visa in 2005, has yet to follow suit.
For the most part, nationwide political polling in India is as much crapshoot as science, and Modi's popularity with voters has never truly been tested outside Gujarat. Nonetheless, a smattering of evidence suggests a strong following among the pan-Indian middle class and the Indian diaspora. A poll by India Today this year declared Modi the country's top pick for prime minister: 24 percent of respondents chose him, compared to 17 percent who preferred Rahul Gandhi. If you criticize Modi on the Internet, you're sure to encounter what Business Standard's Mihir Sharma calls the chief minister's "army of crazed amateur defenders." Traffic at a Google Plus "hangout" featuring Modi in August reportedly crashed the website's servers. Many of Modi's most fervent supporters are hypernationalists who seem to view opposition to him as unpatriotic.
* * *
However, the passion Modi evokes runs both ways. This year, for instance, he garnered the third-most votes worldwide in Time magazine's annual poll to help choose the "100 most influential people" in the world. But though 256,828 people plumped for Modi -- about 10 times the number who picked U.S. President Barack Obama -- even more (266,739 people) gave the chief minister a thumbs-down.
If Modi's supporters view him through the prism of development, his critics define him by the 2002 violence. For them there's no statute of limitations on India's worst riots in a generation. Modi's critics accuse him of abetting the violence by telling the police to turn a blind eye, or at best failing to control the rampaging mobs. They also accuse him of lacking remorse by steadfastly refusing to apologize for the barbarism that occurred on his watch. For his part, Modi stoutly denies any wrongdoing and says he should be hanged if found guilty. In April, an investigation ordered by the Supreme Court cleared him of culpability for the riots, but its findings are subject to appeal. Regardless of the final outcome, the taint of 2002 makes Modi toxic for the one-in-eight Indians who are Muslim, and for many liberal-minded Hindus as well.