On Thursday, Dec. 20, as results come in from this week's elections in Gujarat, Indians will learn the outcome of a state poll that has taken on the flavor of a national referendum. If, as widely expected, Chief Minister Narendra Modi cruises to a third successive victory, he will cement his position as India's leading opposition politician and its top contender to succeed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after national elections that will come no later than the middle of 2014. By contrast, an unlikely defeat, or even a narrow victory, will set back the controversial leader's national ambitions.
Love him or hate him, there's no denying that 62-year-old Modi is India's most polarizing politician. For his legion of supporters -- including many of his 1.1 million followers on Twitter -- Modi is the messiah who will rid Indian politics of sloth, corruption, and petty identity politics. With his no-nonsense management style and inspirational leadership, only he can deliver the economic development Indians crave, say his fans. For his equally vocal detractors, Modi is forever tarred by anti-Muslim riots that occurred 10 years ago, early in his first term as chief minister. Enraged by the burning alive of a group of Hindu pilgrims on a train, mobs went on a three-day rampage that killed about 1,000 people, nearly four-fifths of them Muslim. To Modi's critics, he represents a dangerous Hindu majoritarianism that threatens India's tradition of pluralism and tolerance toward all faiths. They also pooh-pooh his economic management as hype, the product of good fortune and a well-oiled public relations machine.
No matter which argument you prefer, the heightened passions Modi evokes have elevated the Gujarat election -- voting was held in two phases on Dec. 13 and 17 -- to a status way above just another provincial poll in one of India's 28 states. On the outcome hinges the immediate future of India's main opposition party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules 10 states alone or with partners and commands about one-fifth of the national vote. (The ruling Congress party draws between 25 and 30 percent in national elections.) And with the possibility looming that an enfeebled and scandal-plagued Singh government won't serve out its full term -- the ruling coalition lost its parliamentary majority with a key partner's exit in September -- the long-standing question of Modi's national prospects also acquires a new salience.
Simply put, those clamoring for Modi's elevation as the BJP's candidate to lead India underestimate the downsides for the party and the country. Despite his reputation as the country's best economic administrator and most business-friendly politician, Modi's association with anti-Muslim sentiment makes him ill-suited to lead his party's evolution toward a moderate Indian conservatism, a right-of-center alternative to the left-of-center Congress. Nor is it clear that Modi's top-down management style -- perfected in a state where he holds unquestioned sway -- will work in India's fractured national polity. And finally, given India's tough neighborhood and growing international engagement, the last thing the country needs is a leader who diminishes one of its greatest assets -- a well-deserved reputation for pluralism.
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The best way to understand the Modi phenomenon is to view him through the prism of his supporters. For them, the chief minister is that rarest of creatures in India: a politician more interested in public service than in pelf or promoting his progeny.
Indeed, an idealized view of Modi consists of a series of contrasts. In a land swaddled with red tape, Modi is seen as a go-getter. In a culture of inherited privilege -- where politicians tend to hand down power to their children like a family heirloom -- the chief minister comes from humble stock and has risen through dint of effort. He began his career helping an uncle run a railway-station tea stall in his hometown and then worked his way up the ranks of the Hindu-nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) and its sister organization, the BJP, before being catapulted to the chief minister's job in 2001.
In an era of staggering corruption, Modi also stands for personal austerity. He's one of India's few politicians -- Singh is another -- whose declaration of a meager net worth (about $245,000) doesn't evoke guffaws of disbelief. So widely held is the idea of Modi as a paragon of probity that the national media mostly ignored anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal's allegations this month that the Modi government gave sweetheart gas, land, and power deals to businesses considered close to the chief minister.