Modi's Moment

Drums beat, as supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) push forward to toss marigolds and rose petals at Narendra Modi. When Gujarat's chief minister emerges from the airport in the BJP stronghold of Rajkot, there's a cry and a crush of men in saffron scarves emblazoned with the BJP lotus symbol. That evening, speaking at a local IT college, the reception is just as rapturous. "The media say this man is like Hitler," says a local BJP man, introducing Modi to the packed auditorium. "They portrayed him like a devil." And yet, the emcee says, he won the vote. When Modi stands up and starts talking--without notes--in his grave, low voice, the neatly pressed crowd stops fiddling with its mobile phones and starts listening.

Modi is good at entrances. At a Mumbai rally this winter, he emerged from a giant pink hydraulic lotus created for him by a Bollywood set designer. His entry into the national political spotlight has been no less dramatic. In 2001, as a mid-ranking party functionary, he was dispatched from party headquarters in Delhi to steer Gujarat's BJP. Then, a year ago this week, he became the poster boy for India's vicious communal tensions. On Feb. 27, 2002, Muslims set fire to a train in the town of Godhra, killing 58 Hindu pilgrims. In the days that followed, well-organized Hindu crowds retaliated by burning, looting, raping and killing hundreds--some say thousands--of Muslims. Modi's early response (which he later denied) was that Hindu rage was an "equal and opposite reaction" to the train attack.

Newspapers, opposition politicians and human-rights groups charged the Modi government with being complicit in the violence. Even after the riots subsided, Modi's rhetoric did not cool. In his fall campaign for re-election as Gujarat's chief minister, he blatantly played to anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani sentiments, telling voters that a vote for the opposition Congress Party was a vote for "Mian Musharraf," a phrase that linked the Pakistani leader with defamatory Gujarati slang for Muslim. "He was basically trying to say that all of India's Muslims are hidden Pakistanis--traitors to the nation," says Teesta Setalvad, editor of Communalism Combat.

For the BJP, Modi is the perfect 21st-century political specimen: disciplined, media-savvy, silver-tongued and a hard-line Hindu nationalist. "By telling audiences, 'It is only I who can save you from the Muslims,' he speaks in the way that Hindus want to hear," says Jay Dubashi, a former BJP adviser. "He has become an icon for the party." That's particularly true since his fiery Hindu nationalism landed him two thirds of Gujarat's vote, ending a string of BJP election defeats around the country. Party leaders are trying to figure out how to replicate Modi's Gujarat victory in four state elections this month, with three more to come later this year.

There's even talk that Modi could be India's next prime minister. For those keen to preserve India's secularism, painstakingly constructed by leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, that's a terrifying thought. Pundits and opposition politicians worry that Modi-style intimidation of Muslims, Christians and other minorities is making India feel increasingly like 1930s Germany. Human Rights Watch has accused Modi's police force of being complicit in the 2002 violence. "Who is this Human Rights Watch?" he says, in an interview with NEWSWEEK as his eight-seater ministerial plane flies to Rajkot. "Who is behind them? Who funds them?" Besides, he adds, the riot issue is being looked at by a government commission. In the meantime, "the people of Gujarat have already replied, so it's not necessary for me to reply." To his accusers, he quotes Jesus: "Oh, forgive them Lord, they know not what they do."

Love it or loathe it, Modi's Gujarat success has triggered political soul-searching in India. The judiciary's failure to investigate his government for its involvement in the riots, says Justice A. V. Ravani, a former chief justice in Rajasthan, "is Balkanizing the country, and threatening the very basic fabric of this society." The Congress Party--which held secularism as an article of faith for decades and has long tried to convince itself that the BJP's popularity was based mostly on a protest vote--is being forced to confront the depth of Hindu nationalist sentiment in India. In the wake of Modi's December victory, Nehru's old party--which always made a grand show of praising India's religious heterogeneity--has begun to adopt its own version of Hindu-influenced nationalism. Says Jairam Ramesh, the Congress Party's secretary of the economy: "We have to rescue Hinduism from being hijacked by the BJP."

The form of the religion promoted by the nationalists is more political than doctrinal, and relatively modern in origin. Modi, born 53 years ago to a lower-caste family in the Gujarati town of Vadnagar, left home at 17 to join their petri dish, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Influenced by 1930s fascists of Germany and Italy, the RSS founders built a disciplined social organization that insisted India be defined as a Hindu country. Like prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his deputy, L. K. Advani, Modi became an RSS apparatchik. In the mid-1980s he joined the RSS's political wing, the BJP, and later worked to broaden the party's appeal to the lower castes and non-Hindu ethnic groups.

RSS and BJP colleagues describe Modi as a classic organization man: driven, hardworking and ambitious. Separated from his wife, he told India Today he's committed to ascetic bachelorhood: "When you are on a mission, you don't need a companion." It is this disciplined demeanor, says Ramesh, that distinguishes the younger generation in the BJP--a group of up-and-comers he calls "the Albert Speer generation," after Hitler's brilliant architect--from older politicians. "Vajpayee and Advani still operate in a Nehruvian ethos," he notes. "But [politicians in the younger generation] are technocrats," he says. "Economically, they're liberalizers. And socially, they're bigots."

Across the border in Pakistan, Modi's brand of nakedly muscular Hinduism alarms moderates and stokes Islamist anger. At home in India, it appeals to professionals like his audience at the Rajkot computer college: urban, striving middle-class Hindus. Buoyed economically by India's economic liberalization and software success, they're nonetheless keen to keep traditional values alive. (The same is perhaps even more true for the vast and successful Gujarati diaspora in the West, from which much of the nationalists' financial support comes.) By casting Muslim communities as uncivilized and backward, Modi's rhetoric simultaneously equates Hinduism with progress and strength.

Modi, whose 18-hour workdays start online, and whose Handspring pocket organizer boasts his own picture as a screen image, shares his followers' faith in technology. He also appeals to their resentments. Hindus are angered by what they see as the Congress Party's pandering to Muslims, allowing them privileges like their own family law, based on Sharia. "Modi is bidden by the call of the motherland," says H. V. Pradhan, a tourism officer in Ahmedabad. "He says, 'In the world of science and technology, why are you going back to the age of the bullock cart?' He asks, 'How long should we be told by uneducated imams what to do?' "

At Ahmedabad's Shah Alam Mosque, mention Modi's name and people talk of violence, not vision. They recall how Modi's police force refused to protect them during last year's riots, telling them they were Hindus first and policemen second. At dusk, the Mughal monument is a tribute to the centuries-old braid of Islamic and Hindu cultures. For proof of how Indianized Islam has become during its 12 centuries in South Asia, one need only look at how incense thickens the air, candles flicker in front of the saint's tomb and a huddle of musicians belt out qawwali, the songs of South Asian Muslim mystics. Yet the faithful at Shah Alam believe Modi is trying to rip them out of the fabric of Gujarati society. "He wants to finish the minority community here," says Nasrin Sheikh, an English-literature student at Gujarat University. Post-riot politics have changed the 20-year-old's life. "Before, I'd go to see movies or roam in the gardens with my Hindu friends," she says. "Now they say, 'You are not my friend, you're my enemy'." She now hopes to emigrate, worried that she'll have no future as a Muslim in India.

As with many populist politicians, part of Modi's appeal to his constituency lies in his extravagant scorn for India's elites. Though he believes his election was a historical turning point for India, "the winning party isn't acceptable to so-called writers and intellectuals, so they're not writing books about it." Or perhaps they're waiting to see whether Modi's Gujarat success is an aberration or a trend. Anxious for their new golden boy to repeat his winning formula in state elections this month, the BJP is sending him on the stump. His antiterrorism and anti-Pakistan message looks set to be the central plank for parliamentary elections in 2004.

Yet there's a real question as to whether the Gujarat strategy will have traction in other Indian states. Modi's polarizing strategy worked well in the religiously conservative region with its 512-kilometer border with Pakistan and a history of riots and communal tension. Known as the party's "Hindutva laboratory"--the state where it tests out its radical Hindu program--Gujarat is about 10 percent Muslim, but its Islamic population is evenly spread across the state, which means that parties haven't bothered to court a Muslim voting bloc. On the other hand, Himachal Pradesh, which Modi visited last week on the stump, doesn't have Gujarat's huge Muslim population or its religious tensions. At a press conference in the state capital of Simla, Modi started by sounding his familiar themes of "nationalism and security." A few minutes later, sensing the absence of radicals among the audience, he changed tack. The BJP's main goal, he finally said, was efficient administration.

Even if the BJP has to temper the Gujarat message for other Indian states, there's no denying a rising Hindu sensibility may dominate the country's political future. Italian-born Congress leader Sonia Gandhi recently started a campaign at a Hindu temple, and not long ago, a Congress chief minister made a noisy defense of supporting a ban on cow slaughter--long a BJP issue. But it may be tricky for a party that historically was heavily invested in secularism to beat the BJP at its own game. In the end, the best chance of defeating a demagogue lies in ideas and policies that speak to people's needs. If Congress can't come up with them, they may lose the battle for India's political soul. And then this may truly turn out to be Modi's moment.