In 2002, rioters in the western Indian state of Gujarat savagely killed nearly 1,000 people, most of whom were part of the Muslim minority. Now, barely a decade later, Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time and still holds the office, is a leading candidate to become prime minister of India.
Mr. Modi, a star of India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, would become prime minister if the party won enough seats in parliamentary elections next summer with support from its political allies. His rise to power is deeply troubling to many Indians, especially the country’s 138 million Muslims and its many other minorities. They worry he would exacerbate sectarian tensions that have subsided somewhat in the last decade.
Supporters of Mr. Modi argue that an investigation commissioned by India’s Supreme Court cleared him of wrongdoing in the riots. And they insist that Mr. Modi, who is widely admired by middle-class Indians for making Gujarat one of India’s fastest-growing states, can revive the economy, which has been weakened by a decade of mismanagement by the coalition government headed by the Indian National Congress Party.
There is no question that the Congress Party has failed to capitalize on the economic growth of recent years to invest in infrastructure, education and public institutions like the judiciary. And instead of trying to revive itself with new ideas and leaders, it is likely to beled in the coming election by Rahul Gandhi, the inexperienced scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
But Mr. Modi’s strident Hindu nationalism has fueled public outrage. When Reuters asked him earlier this year if he regretted the killings in 2002, he said, if “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.” That incendiary response created a political uproar and demands for an apology.
Mr. Modi has shown no ability to work with opposition parties or tolerate dissent. And he has already alienated political partners; this summer, an important regional party broke off its 17-year alliance with the B.J.P. because it found Mr. Modi unacceptable.
His economic record in Gujarat is not entirely admirable, either. Muslims in Gujarat, for instance, were much more likely to be poor than Muslims in India as a whole in 2009 and 2010, according to a government report, though new data has shown a big improvement in the last two years.
India is a country with multiple religions, more than a dozen major languages and numerous ethnic groups and tribes. Mr. Modi cannot hope to lead it effectively if he inspires fear and antipathy among many of its people.