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Narenda Modi: India's popular yet polarizing figure

Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate of India’s opposition BJP-led alliance in the next general election, is one of the most polarizing figures in the nation. DW takes a look at his political rise.

On February 27, 2002 a train carrying dozens of Hindu activists among others caught fire under mysterious circumstances in the western Indian state of Gujarat resulting in 58 deaths. The incident, coupled with reports that Muslim mobs were involved in the train burning, triggered one of the deadliest outbreaks of religious violence in India in recent history, leaving around 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus dead and several thousand injured.

The communal riots have tarnished the image of Narendra Modi, who has been governing the state since 2001. Born to lower middle-class parents, Modi pursued a Master's degree in political science and worked for many years as a propagandist for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist outfit, before entering the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the late 1980s.

After rising through the party ranks, Modi became the Chief Minister of Gujarat in October 2001, just months before the communal violence erupted. His administration has ever since been accused of abetting the 2002 riots and failing to take measures to protect minorities.

The allegations provided ammunition to Modi's opponents and various NGO's to brand him as "anti-Muslim" and a "Hindu nationalist," thus making him one of India's most controversial and divisive politicians. In 2012, Maya Kodnani, a former minister in Modi's cabinet was convicted for her role in the attacks and sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Youths burn vehicles and debris in the streets of Ahmadabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2002. (Photo: AP)

Modi has been accused of abetting the communal riots in 2002

The Chief Minister, however, has always denied the allegations made against him. His supporters argue that he has been unfairly maligned and an investigation by an India's Supreme Court-appointed team cleared him of any wrongdoing in the riots, Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

Yet this hasn't been enough to silence his critics, who continue to blame him for the deadly religious riots.

Good economics

Over the past decade, Modi's peculiar governing style has also prompted strong reactions. Dubbed "authoritarian" by his detractors, his supporters hail it as "decisive," crediting the controversial politician for making his state one of India's fastest-growing with double-digit growth rates over the past decade.

Jagdish Bhagwati, professor of Economics and Law at Columbia University, says the Chief Minister has presided over the state's impressive economic record. "Modi has attracted a great deal of investment to Gujarat, both domestic and foreign, because he has offered a corruption-free environment and is reputed to take quick decisions on granting licenses to invest and manufacture, whereas in almost every other Indian State the delays are pathetic," the economist told DW.

Indeed, Gujarat received around 8.8 billion USD in foreign direct investment (FDI) between 2000 and 2013, amounting to nearly 4 percent of India's total FDI during this period, according to government data.

Critics argue that economic growth in Gujarat has not transformed into human and social development as it has focused solely on physical infrastructure and not on education and health. But economist Bhagwati says that Modi's record on poverty reduction and on social indicators like literacy and electrification of villages is remarkable.

In 2011-12, the state's GDP grew at 8.5 percent, while India's economy expanded between 5-6 percent. The state's continued strong performance has helped boost the politician's image across the country.

A popular leader

To Modi's advantage, a slew of high-profile corruption scandals have contributed to the growing disenchantment of the public with the ruling Congress Party-led coalition government. Dr. S. Chandrasekharan, director of the India-based think tank South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), says that Modi is popular with segments of Indian population such as the middle classes, traders and students among others.

Furthermore, he has been endorsed by many industrialists for the post of prime minister. Analyst Vaishnav explains business leaders hope that Modi will be able to scale up the pro-growth and investment policies he championed in Gujarat to the all-India level and plug the leadership vacuum they believe the nation has suffered over the past several years."

Against this backdrop, Modi was named last September the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in the upcoming general elections scheduled for April-May this year. Despite strong support from pockets of Indian society and surveys placing him as the front-runner, experts say, it is uncertain if the BJP-led coalition would win enough seats to form the next government.

Vaishnav warns that although Modi appears to be in the lead, election polls in India have a checkered past, falsely predicting big BJP victories in the previous two parliamentary elections.

Foreign relations

Political analyst Chandrasekharan believes a BJP-led alliance may not win a majority on its own and would require the support of other political groups. But in the event of a BJP victory, Western governments, particularly the US administration, could face a tricky situation.

In the aftermath of the 2002 riots, many countries in the West such as Germany, the UK, and the US cut ties with Modi and barred him from setting foot on their territory citing his role in the communal violence. The US Congress even passed a resolution in 2005 condemning him for promoting Nazi ideology and "racial hatred."

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Modi's visa to the US was revoked in the aftermath of the communal violence

The situation has changed in recent years, with several countries ending their boycott of the BJP leader and deciding to initiate government-level discussions. But the United States, which revoked Modi's visa in 2005, is yet to end its restrictions.

Although Washington remains the most important holdout, experts believe the US government would have no choice but to engage with Modi were he to become India's next prime minister. "It does appear that the Obama administration is likely to take a pragmatic approach, given the growing economic, diplomatic and security ties between India and the United States," said Vaishnav.