Viewpoint: Narendra Modi makes his move

Narendra Modi Mr Modi is now a prime candidate to lead India

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Many Indians cannot accept Gujarat 's strongman as Prime Minister. It may be time to accept he may become that anyway says commentator Samar Halarnkar.

  • We send more Muslims to the Haj [the annual pilgrimage] to Mecca than any other state in India
  • At 9%, the percentage of Muslims in government jobs matches their ratio in the larger population. Compare that with West Bengal where they are 25% of the population but hold only 3.2% of government jobs.
  • In the district with the highest Muslim population, 40% of businessmen are Muslim; they buy a quarter of new cars and a third of all property.
  • Welfare programmes in my state for other backward castes reach 30 Muslim communities. The Centre has given us "good" rating for the national 15-point minority programme, unlike the "poor" rating to 18 states, most Congress ruled.

Two weeks ago, this enthusiastic presentation of Muslim advancement came from an unlikely source, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, 62.

Beloved to large swathes of the Indian Hindu urban middle class, Narendra Modi rarely feels the need to talk about what he calls "minority appeasement".

Prime candidate

Yet, this address to the minority cell of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's primary opposition party, was Mr Modi's first concerted effort to woo Muslims.

It is a precursor to state assembly elections in December and parliamentary elections in 2014.

Mass Muslim marriage in Gujarat Mr Modi claims Muslims are economically well off in Gujarat

The state elections are important because they must unequivocally deliver to Mr Modi his fourth term as chief minister.

If that happens, the path will be clear to Mr Modi's real destination: 7 Race Course Road, the residence and office of India's prime minister.

Much to the dismay of people like me - liberal and secular (or "sickular", as the virulent, often abusive internet Hindu likes to call us) - Mr Modi is now a prime candidate to lead India, slowly winning over his own sceptical party, displacing rivals and in polls pushing past previous prime ministerial topper, Rahul Gandhi.

Flanked by BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, chairman of Gujarat's Haj Committee, Sufi Saiyad Mahebub Ali and retired Indian Administrative Service officer and chairman of the state Waqf board, Ali Saiyed, Mr Modi knew his quiet campaign for the Muslim vote was as important as a public endorsement - which came last week - of his prime ministerial dreams by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation that serves as the BJP's ideological crucible.

Mr Modi kicked off his campaign at the right time. India 's growth story is in tatters, the prime minister has little authority over his own party and even a country given to the patchwork, fix-it-for-now way of life called "jugaad" demands a vision and a leader with conviction.

Narendra Modi's vision is wide and precise. It is called panchamrut, a philosophy of five elixirs - education, energy, water, security and human development and it is backed by strong conviction.

In that sense, Mr Modi is to 2010s India what former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was to 1970s India.

Her vision, set out in her "20-point programme" and slogan of "garibi hatao", was to banish poverty.

Mr Modi's panchamrut is as relevant to aspirational, impatient and emerging India as Indira's was to the poor, patient and declining country of her time. Like Mr Modi, she was strong and authoritative, qualities particularly desired in modern India.

Uncommon energy

In conversations on the street and living room, in newspaper column and talk show, it is impossible to miss India's yearning for the rule of law, sense of purpose and leaders who can lead.

A refinery in Gujarat Gujarat is one of India's fastest growing economies

At this time of uncertainty, Mr Modi stands out, something his own party, the BJP - once wary of his ambitions and dictatorial tendencies - now accepts.

When I visited Gujarat last year, I saw the uncommon energy and initiative he had engendered among his bureaucrats by freeing them from the whims of his ministers.

You can glean Mr Modi's work ethic from a Benjamin Disraeli quote on his website: "The secret of success is consistency of purpose."

For someone often inaccessible to his own ministers, Narendra Modi is remarkably close to his middle-class constituents and in tune with their culture.

At his website, you can write to him, request an appointment and invite him to an event.

You can also download wallpapers like Mr Modi with his idol Swami Vivekanada, sharing a quote: "It is time for all of us to arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached", screensavers such as a stern Mr Modi, happy Mr Modi, victorious Mr Modi, computer-savvy Mr Modi, Mr Modi with a turban or suit and cravat and ringtones, including Jai Jai Garvi Gujarat, a Gujarati anthem by Grammy award winner AR Rehman.

None of this means Narendra Modi will be Prime Minister.

However much his admirers want him to triumph, Mr Modi is substantially unknown in India 's vast hinterland, and his strong, solitary ways do not sit well in this age of coalitions.

Even if he wins the BJP over, Mr Modi must win over the disparate constituents of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), where Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar state, is ominously quiet.

Divisive

Bihar is now India 's fastest growing state economy, Nitish Kumar is as personally incorruptible as Manmohan Singh or Narendra Modi and he is not the divisive figure that Mr Modi continues to be.

I can never vote for Mr Modi and the BJP for the same reason I could never vote the Gandhis and the Congress.

Janata Party (BJP) leader and Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, left, speaks with party president Nitin Gadkari during a public rally in Mumbai, India. Mr Modi's leadership ambitions are opposed by some in his party

These are people who have winked at independent India's two greatest pogroms, against Muslims in the case of the BJP and against Sikhs in the case of the Congress.

Both parties know that mass murder of minorities is rarely a deterrent to electoral success. Both argue that the Delhi of 1984 and the Gujarat of 2002 have moved on.

Moving on is a quality you will not find among the widows of Trilokpuri in east Delhi. They saw their men necklaced, burned alive and stabbed to death and now after 28 years still see the killers roam free.

Moving on is not something you will find among those in Gujarat whose families were massacred 10 years ago and who witness similar official resistance to prosecuting and punishing the killers.

Many Indians, such as I, can never accept Mr Modi as prime minister. But it may be time to accept he may become that anyway.

Samar Halarnkar is a columnist and writer who chronicles emerging India. He is based in Bangalore.

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