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Loved and Loathed, Indian Politician Narendra Modi Seeks Re-election

December 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Narendra Modi, chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, is running for a fourth term, and many believe he will be India's next prime minister. Kira Kay reports that although he is a political darling to some, Muslim residents of Gujarat are concerned that Modi has not stood up for the rights of religious minorities.

GWEN IFILL: Next, an election to watch in India, a longtime U.S. ally, an economic powerhouse and the world’s largest democracy.

Special correspondent Kira Kay has the story of a politician, with a questionable past, who many believe will become the country’s next prime minister in 2014.

KIRA KAY: It’s election season in the Indian state of Gujarat and Narendra Modi, the current chief minister, is running for a fourth term.

To these party faithful and to millions more Indians, Modi is a leader of integrity and skill. Many see in him a future prime minister. Around the city of Ahmedabad, you can see Modi’s pursuit of a so-called vibrant Gujarat, with an emphasis on foreign investment and development of public infrastructure.

There is a new I.T. hub under construction on the outskirts and a major manufacturing park, including a Ford Motor plant just breaking ground.

ZAFAR SARESHWALA, India: People have more money. There’s more business. The spending power of people has increased tremendously.

KIRA KAY: Zafar Sareshwala’s BMW showroom is booming. He credits Gujarat’s success to Modi’s more everyday efforts, like a reliable power grid, a vibrant education sector, a new rapid transit bus system that is unclogging polluted city roads.

ZAFAR SARESHWALA: Now, all these things were there on the ground for at least 30, 40 years, but no government would implement. So, Modi, what he did, he has daily work.  

KIRA KAY: On the streets, Gujaratis, from lawyers to plumbers, see Modi as a hero.

J.P. MAKWANA, India (through translator): He’s given us water, roads, everything. That’s why people love him. He does what he says. Also, there are no allegations of corruption against Modi.

KIRA KAY: But for all of Modi’s popularity, he is also one of the most polarizing figures in India today, despised by many for a period of vicious communal violence that happened on his watch. It was in early 2002 in Muslim neighborhoods in Ahmedabad and all across Gujarat that mobs of thousands of enraged Hindus exacted revenge on Muslims for the burning deaths of 58 Hindu religious pilgrims in a train car the day before.

Shakila Bano and her family saw the mobs torching their mosque and tried to flee.

SHAKILA BANO, India (through translator): They threw petrol on the group and lit it on fire. My brother’s head was severed with a sword. My two-month-old nephew, Nadin, was burned in the fire. They also burned my mother alive.

KIRA KAY: The national army was sent in, but only after the worst violence was over. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were dead. Thousands more were displaced.

Shamhad Pathan is a lawyer working on behalf of the victims.

SHAMHAD PATHAN, India (through translator): Muslims thought this kind of violence wasn’t possible without help from the government, that the day would come when Muslims wouldn’t be able to live in Ahmedabad anymore.

KIRA KAY: While India is a Hindu-majority country, it contains the world’s largest Muslim minority, 177 million people. There has been a history of communal violence here, which has been exploited for political purposes, says the imam of Ahmedabad’s central mosque.

MUFTI SHABBIR AHMED SIDDIQUI, India (through translator): There are many ways of stopping the violence. Programs to promote communal unity can be created. The problem is that if you make this your agenda, then you will not get elected.

KIRA KAY: It was in this climate that Narendra Modi emerged on the political scene, embracing religious ideology and rising through the ranks of a political party founded on Hindu nationalism. This religious orientation resonates, says social scientist Adjat Yagnik.

MAN: Hindu middle class in Gujarat, very powerful, they wanted a meaningful identity. And Hindu tradition, Hinduness, gives them that great identity.

KIRA KAY: That identity was exploited in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 train burning by Hindu groups aligned with Modi’s political party, says human rights lawyer Mukul Sinha.

MUKUL SINHA, Human Rights Lawyer: They know that one of the most emotive point for the Hindus would be to see the manor in which the dead bodies were. They paraded the dead bodies and they held a funeral march. They had about 50,000 people.

KIRA KAY: Modi’s government has maintained that the riots that followed were spontaneous and not premeditated by the state.

But Adjat Yagnik says Modi’s party seized the opportunity in elections held a few months later.

MAN: There was a political goal, no doubt about that. In order to unite Hindus, you have to create an enemy. Or you have to create “the other” — quote, unquote. And who were the other? The others were Muslim? After this carnage, they won.

KIRA KAY: Lawyer Mukul Sinha took up the cases of the riot victims, but had trouble getting them investigated by local authorities. One case suggested fuel taken from a police vehicle was used to burn victims.

MUKUL SINHA: There is evidence. There is eyewitnesses, but the case was closed. And I had to move the high court even to get the police report filed after four months.

MEENAKSHI GANGULY, Human Rights Watch: Activists that were working on these cases started receiving threatening phone calls. And it became more and more clear that witnesses were not feeling secure.

KIRA KAY: Meenakshi Ganguly is with Human Rights Watch. She says India’s Supreme Court finally had to create an independent investigative body and special court process to try the resulting cases. Victims like Shakila Bano finally had their day in court.

SHAKILA BANO (through translator): I got a lot of threats to keep me from speaking out. They offered me money not to name names, but I didn’t listen to them. I wanted justice for all the people I had lost.

KIRA KAY: In the last two years, there have been 150 convictions, including Mayad Kodnani, who in 2002 was a parliamentarian for Modi’s party, and since the violence was made a minister in his government.

MUKUL SINHA: Where exactly the violence had taken place.

KIRA KAY: Mukul Sinha’s office spent more than a year crunching phone records that were used to convict Kodnani and others. He says they also show calls to Modi’s office, but without eyewitnesses to corroborate them, they won’t become evidence.

Meenakshi Ganguly says that even without criminal liability, the buck stops with Modi.

MEENAKSHI GANGULY: We know for a fact that police refused to protect Muslims. We know that, under his administration, the rule of law collapsed. We also know that he has never found it in himself to express any kind of sadness for the fact that so many people lost their lives.

KIRA KAY: But, still, some Muslims in Gujarat have chosen to reengage. Zafar Sareshwala, the businessman, is Muslim. His family and business suffered in 2002, and he filed a human rights case against Modi, but had a change of heart.

ZAFAR SARESHWALA: Gujarat has 7.5 million Muslims. Muslims cannot remain in isolation with the administration. We need to sit down and talk.

KIRA KAY: He began a collaboration with Modi.

ZAFAR SARESHWALA: A lot of issues have been raised with Mr. Modi, Muslim schools, hospitals, Muslims in jail.

KIRA KAY: But the feeling is different in ghettos like Citizen Nagar, where Muslims displaced by the violence still live in temporary housing in the shadow of a garbage dump.

NOOR BANO, India (through translator): He’s making vibrant Gujarat, but there is no school here, no hospitals. The roads are bad.

MOHAMMED SHEIKH, India (through translator): You may have seen progress in certain areas in the city, in the Hindu area. We get no aid from the Modi government. He says we’re living well here. Does it look like we live well here?

MEENAKSHI GANGULY: I think he reflects something of India today, because you can say Modi has many good qualities, like he is a good — he is supposed to be a very good administrator, that his state runs very efficiently. Those are good things.

If he is going to be a leader like that, it will be a good thing. If, on the other hand, he’s a leader that creates communal hate, that fails to protect a certain community, that will be unfortunate for an India that wants to be recognized and be given a place in the world as an emerging power.

KIRA KAY: Modi, who declined our multiple requests for an interview, was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 due to religious freedom concerns; 25 members of the U.S. Congress are now urging Secretary of State Clinton to keep the ban in place.

Narendra Modi will not need the votes of Muslim citizens to win this week, but his future on India’s stage, with national elections coming in 2014, remains in question, as the specter of the 2002 violence continues to follow him.

GWEN IFILL: Election results will be announced on Thursday.

Kira’s story is part of a series, “Fault Lines of Faith,” produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting. Online, you can also find the latest report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, showing the religious makeup of the world by country and region.