Like the scarlet letter borne by the adulterous protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, Narendra Modi is condemned to bear a prominent saffron “C” for controversy as long as he is prominent in India’s public life. The chief minister of Gujarat, arguably India’s most economically “emerged” state, aspires to higher office – that of prime minister.
But he cannot even be invited to address a seminar by a US university business forum without stirring controversy. Indian-American professors at Pennsylvania University conducted a well-publicised protest against Mr Modi’s human rights record, arguing that a speech by Mr Modi on economic growth and development would help “sanitise” his administration’s acts during Gujarat’s 2002 communal riots, which left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead in one short bloody month. The speech was cancelled and the controversy continues.
It can only become more heated, as political parties, pundits and the public consider the options ahead of general elections due in India by mid-2014. There is the governing Congress Party, with its dynastic mindset and corruption-ridden economic mismanagement. And then there is the main opposition Hindu nationalist BJP, with its muscular vision for India, which is widely expected to choose Mr Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.
Mr Modi’s candidature would force India into an epic struggle between its conscience and its consumerist instincts, between collective principles and collective aspiration. Like Buridan’s Ass, the hungry hypothetical creature named after the French philosopher, a fast-developing India starved of good governance will hesitate midway between hay and water; in this case, between moral principle and monetary profit.
Mr Modi, his supporters say, offers economic competence, excellent administrative skills and an enviably clear example of what the future might look like. They mean Gujarat, which The Economist lyrically anointed “India’s Guangdong” in July 2011.
But that’s a problem. In principle, many Indians don’t want Mr Modi’s Gujarat to be a template for India, even though his state outstrips the national growth rate and has become an industrial hub that accounts for 16 per cent of manufacturing and nearly a quarter of exports. It has offerings generally hard for businesses to find in India – little red tape, reasonable and fair labour laws, decent roads, constant electricity and water, and an efficient bureaucracy. It runs an enthusiastic and effective e-governance project, so much so that the UK’s medicines’ regulator recently signed up for training.
Few deny that all of this has come to pass because of Mr Modi, an intelligent politician and good manager, who combines bachelor rectitude with a reputation for personal financial probity. But not everyone is convinced that Gujarat has quite the ring for India, land of the Mahatama, in the last quarter of its first century as an independent country.
• The continuing ban on a US visa for Mr Modi has run eight years and, according to a US Congress resolution, “is the first and only time such a denial has been issued on the grounds of a religious freedom violation under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998”.
• On the 10th anniversary of the riots, the US Congress, which is as prone to self-serving weasel words as any legislative body, recalled the events and quoted Brown University professor Ashutosh Varshney, an expert on Indian riots, to say it was “the first full-blooded pogrom in independent India”.
• The US Department of State, along with several Indian and international organisations, has reported on “the role of Chief Minister Modi and his government in promoting attitudes of racial supremacy, racial hatred, and the legacy of Nazism through his government’s support of school textbooks in which Nazism is glorified … [they] describe the ‘charismatic personality’ of ‘Hitler the Supremo’, and the ‘achievements’ of Nazism at great length.”
• When Mr Modi visited London a few months after the riots, I asked him if the Gujarat image overseas was affected by international criticism, but he was dismissive. He compared the Gujarat carnage to the post-September 11 US retaliation and Delhi’s anti-Sikh riots after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. “No one has asked this question to the USA after 9/11. Delhi is developing fast – no one has asked this question to Delhi after 1984. If it does not matter to Delhi and USA, why should it matter to Gujarat?”
• Last but not least, Markandey Katju, a retired Supreme Court judge and current chairman of the Press Council of India, recently called for Indians to recognise that glossing over the killing of Muslims was reminiscent of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in Nazi Germany, when state paramilitaries helped to attack Jewish properties and people.
If that sounds extreme, it is at least worth noting that this is the context in which Mr Modi is condemned to wear controversy like an albatross around his neck, regardless of his economic management and governance of Gujarat. The controversy still roils.
“Right now, Modi has the tailwind aiding his rise,” wrote the columnist R Jagannathan. “The Indian electorate has changed. It is no longer taken in by mere political posturing. It is demanding governance, and is now willing to give those who deliver a longer stint in power, never mind what the media thinks about them.”
Mr Modi as candidate for prime minister appears to present India with a choice between good management without morals and principled governance consistent with the original secular idea of India. It would be the choice between base gratification of the needs of today and the partially realised aspirations for tomorrow.
Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India, is now a freelance writer
On Twitter: @rashmeerl