No politician in recent times has divided public opinion in India to quite the extent the controversial chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi has managed. The possibility that Modi could run for prime minister for India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has only sharpened the schism between his supporters and opponents. This divide is clearly evident in the media, with some outlets openly vouching for the leader.
Modi’s capacity for sparking controversy was reflected most recently when the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania cancelled an invitation for him to address the Wharton India Economic Forum. The School had initially invited the leader to address the annual conference via video conference on March 23. It was canceled, however, when a group of professors and students protested Modi’s appearance on the conference agenda.
Before the Wharton controversy, Modi was compelled to pull out of a printers’ conference in New Delhi after an influential group of publishers threatened to withdraw from the conference in protest over his scheduled appearance at the event.
Modi faced similar resistance at Delhi University last month when he addressed students at the Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC). He managed to deliver his speech, covering Gujarat’s model for business growth, but shied away from taking students’ questions.
Despite his economic speaking engagements, in the popular consciousness Modi’s reputation is linked to a massacre that took place during an outbreak of sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002 while he was chief minister of the state. Many accused of him of failing to intervene to stop the violence, which led to more than 1,000 deaths (mostly Muslims), although the courts found otherwise.
While many critics agree that Modi has helped spur economic growth in Gujarat since becoming the state’s chief minister in 2001, they contend that he uses the economic growth argument to overshadow the riots of 2002.
As the country passes through a phase of slow economic growth and political leaders in Delhi are losing popularity, Modi is attempting to position himself as a well-meaning politician with a track record that proves he could be the one to get India’s economy back on track.
His confidence was recently bolstered by his third straight win at the polls last December in Gujarat. Just before those recent elections, Britain ended a 10-year diplomatic boycott of all things Modi. The EU followed suit and established contact with him after the election.
The softening position of the international community and growing support by large sections of India’s urban middle class has emboldened Modi, who has launched a media campaign to promote his narrative of economic success. This shift has raised concerns for many about the potential consequences for India if Modi were to become its prime minister
In an opinion piece published by The Hindu, former judge of the Indian Supreme Court and current chairman of the Press Council of India Markandey Katju wrote that development means only one thing: Raising the standard of living for the masses. Giving concessions to big industry, such as offering cheap land and electricity, cannot be called development if it does not raise the nation’s overall standard of living.
In the article, Katju points out that 48 percent of children in Gujarat are malnourished, higher than the national average. Further, the state’s poverty rate in tribal areas is as high as 57 percent.
These figures call into question Modi’s recent political moderation and effectiveness as a leader, and suggest that once the hype settles down, India’s masses may be reluctant to buy into his narrative.