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5 Things You Should Know About India's New Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Categories: South Asia, India, Breaking News, Economics & Business, Elections, Human Rights, Politics, Religion
Narendra Modi expressing his happiness to voters and the media. Photo by Aviral Mediratta. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014) [1]

Narendra Modi expressing his happiness to voters and the media. Photo by Aviral Mediratta. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014)

Indians have chosen Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) [2] in a historic landslide victory [3] that unseated the ruling Indian National Congress party and signifies the return of a single-party majority.

Modi will soon be at the helm of the world's largest democracy and an economic powerhouse. He has received criticism from many people, including writer Salman Rushdie [4] and Harvard University professor Homi Bhabha [5], among others, in a joint statement against his candidacy [6]

But who is this charismatic but polemic leader? What does he stand for? There are things that are important to know, and not all of them bad.  

1. He is controversial for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots

Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002 when riots broke out [7] in the city of Godhra after a train carrying Hindus was burnt down as it was coming from the holy city of Ayodhya in North India. In the ensuring Hindi-Muslim violence, between 900 and 2,000 people were killed, predominantly Muslim.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist, reportedly expressed satisfaction after the dismal events of 2002. His only regret was that he did not handle the news media better [8], according to the New York Times.

Though he has been cleared by the courts of India [9], some still believe he allowed the Gujarat riots to rage on. Senior police officer in the Gujarat intelligence bureau Sanjiv Bhatt alleges that Modi told officials that the Muslim community needed to be taught a lesson [10]

2. He may prove to have a positive impact on the economy

Modi's win is expected to improve trade with the United States [11] and boost the Indian economy. After interviewing 68,500 voters before and after the elections, a group of researchers [12]  [12]from the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Endowment and India's Lok Foundation reported that 57 percent of interviewees mentioned economic issues as “most important.” 

As chief minister of Gujarat, he oversaw the rapid industrialization of once sleepy areas, a feat he says he wants to replicate elsewhere in India. Modi has used his successes in Gujarat as election leverage, holding up the “Gujarat model” to differentiate himself, as news site Live Mint [13] reported.

If the 2002 riots hurt his campaign, the economic angle helped boost him back up. As Rajeev Malik, a Singapore-based economist, said in a Financial Times column [14]:

It is not as if the 2002 [Gujarat riots] blot has been wiped out; it is just that the broader current urgency of economic well-being has overtaken a dated tragedy.

3. His track record on women's issues may be lacking

Will the role of women improve under a Modi lead government? In an article for the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Hardeep Dhillon [15] criticized both candidates for seeing women through the lens of safety, security and education. She argued Modi specifically sees women as passive:

women are imagined to behave, think, and perform in uniformity and their politics are established prior to their emergence on the political landscape. As a result, Indian women are stripped of the very political agency Mr. Modi claims to advocate for, rendering them as passive – rather than active – political actors.

The author also raised concerns about the contrast between Modi’s vocal condemnations of the “rape culture” that led to the 2012 Delhi gang rape and his silence on the treatment of Muslim and minority women in his state. His “secret wife [16]” – Modi had presented himself as a bachelor until this election cycle – has also caused some to question his treatment of women. 

4. He maintains an anti-immigrant stance

significant number [17] of Bangladeshis have migrated to India in the past decade to reunite with family members, for job opportunities, and to escape environmental [18] crises, among other reasons. The wave of people has prompted India to step up security along its border with Bangladesh, including installing barbed-wire fences.

If Modi has his way, he would send all the undocumented Bangaldeshi immigrants [19] back. In a speech on April 28, 2014, Modi threatened [20]:

I want to warn from here, brothers and sisters write down, that after May 16, will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with their bags and baggages.

The reaction to Modi's speech on social media showed people are listening. Posts under the #deportbangladeshis [21] hashtag made it to at the top of Twitter's trend list in India.

5. His past religious fervor sets a questionable example for a secular India 

Modi was a youth member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS [22]), a right-wing, volunteer Hindu nationalist group, and describes himself as a Hindu nationalist [23]. In contrast to his youth as an RSS member, Modi has recently said he does not believe in dividing voters along religious lines [24]

Yet some still worry his election doesn't bode well for religious tolerance. As Sunny Hundal wrote in an opinion piece for CNN:

The broader context is that India is seeing a rising tide of intolerance [25] whipped up by Hindu nationalist groups that have forced books to be banned [26]intimidated journalists [27] and threatened people [28] for criticizing their leaders.

French Political Scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, in an interview with Scroll.in [29], alleged:

Plan A for Modi is to succeed on the economic front, and if that does not work then emphasising on Hindutva politics may be an important Plan B.

Indian author Pankaj Mishra painted a particularly dark picture in The Guardian [30], saying Modi's election means “a new turbulent phase for the country – arguably, the most sinister since its independence from British rule in 1947.

For his part, Modi has maintained [24] he speaks to all of India, regardless of religion:

For the nation my mantra is 125 crore Indians. Hindu, Muslim, Christians… The country had enough of all these terminologies. The new terminologies will be youth, poor, farmer, village, city, education.

Time will tell if he means that.