India May Soon Elect Its Most Polarizing Politician

May 02, 2014 at 3:58 PM ET

Twelve years ago, in India’s western state of Gujarat, a throng of Muslims attacked a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, killing more than 50. The next day, Hindu mobs retaliated with a three-day rampage, and more than 1,000 people, many of whom were Muslim, died in the process. Those who witnessed the carnage gave chilling accounts of how the police didn’t arrive or refused to come to victims’ aid. Some even reportedly helped the killers.

Since then, many have suspected that Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, was either complicit in the violence or chose to look the other way. A Supreme Court-backed investigation cleared the Hindu nationalist of any involvement, but the specter of the riot has haunted him for more than a decade.

Today Modi is the leading candidate to become India’s next prime minister. The ballots won’t be tallied until May 12, but already many feel the election in the world’s largest democracy is a battle for the country’s soul, and will determine whether India remains a secular state.

As it stands, Modimania has swept across this nation of more than 1 billion people, as the charismatic leader has reached out to Hindus of all castes. His appeal lies not just in his willingness to stand up to Muslim groups, but also in the hard line he’s drawn against China and Pakistan, and his image as a strong figure who can revive India’s sputtering economy. Since the Gujarat riots, the region has stayed peaceful, and Modi, its longstanding chief minister, helped mold the state into a hub for business and economic development. Meanwhile, over the past decade, a series of corruption scandals has shaken the ruling Congress Party. And on an oratorical level, Modi, the 63-year-old son of a tea seller, routinely outshines his younger opponent, Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of India’s most famed political dynasty.

Modi’s detractors, however, aren’t impressed by his charisma. They say the veteran politician has done little more than create a class of crony capitalists and rising inequality. As Amartya Sen, the noted economist and Nobel laureate put it last year, “Gujarat’s record in education and healthcare is pretty bad.” Critics have also vilified Modi as a bigot and likened his supporters to soccer hooligans, hell-bent on shifting the Indian state away from secularism. They fear a Modi administration would usher in an era of Hindu supremacy—and that minorities would become little more than second-class citizens.

For all the talk about religion and its role in the state, Gandhi and the Congress Party have looked awfully hypocritical in saying that Modi was complicit in the 2002 riots. In 1984, after two Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Hindu mobs in Delhi responded by killing 3,000 Sikhs over a three-day period. Witnesses say that the political leadership of the Congress Party and the police were complicit in the attacks, but no politician has ever been held accountable.

In that sense, perhaps the battle for India’s soul goes well beyond Modi.