WHO does not marvel at the prospect of India going to the polls? Starting on April 7th, illiterate villagers and destitute slum-dwellers will have an equal say alongside Mumbai’s millionaires in picking their government. Almost 815m citizens are eligible to cast their ballots in nine phases of voting over five weeks—the largest collective democratic act in history.
But who does not also deplore the fecklessness and venality of India’s politicians? The country is teeming with problems, but a decade under a coalition led by the Congress party has left it rudderless. Growth has fallen by half, to about 5%—too low to provide work for the millions of young Indians joining the job market each year. Reforms go undone, roads and electricity remain unavailable, children are left uneducated. Meanwhile politicians and officials are reckoned to have taken bribes worth between $4 billion and $12 billion during Congress’s tenure. The business of politics, Indians conclude, is corruption.
No wonder that the overwhelming favourite to become India’s next prime minister is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi. He could not be more different from Rahul Gandhi, his Congress party rival. The great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first premier, Mr Gandhi would ascend to office as if by divine right. Mr Modi is a former teaseller propelled to the top by sheer ability. Mr Gandhi seems not to know his own mind—even whether he wants power. Mr Modi’s performance as chief minister of Gujarat shows that he is set on economic development and can make it happen. Mr Gandhi’s coalition is tainted by corruption. By comparison Mr Modi is clean.
So there is much to admire. Despite that, this newspaper cannot bring itself to back Mr Modi for India’s highest office.
The reason begins with a Hindu rampage against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, in which at least 1,000 people were slaughtered. The orgy of murder and rape in Ahmedabad and the surrounding towns and villages was revenge for the killing of 59 Hindu pilgrims on a train by Muslims.
Mr Modi had helped organise a march on the holy site at Ayodhya in 1990 which, two years later, led to the deaths of 2,000 in Hindu-Muslim clashes. A lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group in whose cause he has vowed lifelong celibacy, he made speeches early in his career that shamelessly whipped up Hindus against Muslims. In 2002 Mr Modi was chief minister and he was accused of allowing or even abetting the pogrom.
Mr Modi’s defenders, and there are many, especially among the business elite, point to two things. First, repeated investigations—including by the admirably independent Supreme Court—have found nothing to charge their man with. And second, they say, Mr Modi has changed. He has worked tirelessly to attract investment and to boost business for the benefit of Hindus and Muslims alike. Think, they say, of the huge gains to poor Muslims across India of a well-run economy.
On both counts, that is too generous. One reason why the inquiries into the riots were inconclusive is that a great deal of evidence was lost or wilfully destroyed. And if the facts in 2002 are murky, so are Mr Modi’s views now. He could put the pogroms behind him by explaining what happened and apologising. Yet he refuses to answer questions about them. In a rare comment last year he said he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would that of a puppy run over by a car. Amid the uproar, he said he meant only that Hindus care about all life. Muslims—and chauvinist Hindus—heard a different message. Unlike other BJP leaders, Mr Modi has refused to wear a Muslim skullcap and failed to condemn riots in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 when most of the victims were Muslim.
The lesser of two evils
“Dog-whistle” politics is deplorable in any country. But in India violence between Hindus and Muslims is never far from the surface. At partition, when British India fractured, about 12m people were uprooted and hundreds of thousands perished. Since 2002 communal violence has died down, but there are hundreds of incidents and scores of deaths each year. Sometimes, as in Uttar Pradesh, the violence is on an alarming scale. The spark could also come from outside. In Mumbai in 2008 India suffered horrific attacks by terrorists from Muslim Pakistan—a nagging, nuclear-armed presence next door.
By refusing to put Muslim fears to rest, Mr Modi feeds them. By clinging to the anti-Muslim vote, he nurtures it. India at its finest is a joyous cacophony of peoples and faiths, of holy men and rebels. The best of them, such as the late columnist Khushwant Singh are painfully aware of the damage caused by communal hatred. Mr Modi might start well in Delhi but sooner or later he will have to cope with a sectarian slaughter or a crisis with Pakistan—and nobody, least of all the modernisers praising him now, knows what he will do nor how Muslims, in turn, will react to such a divisive man.
If Mr Modi were to explain his role in the violence and show genuine remorse, we would consider backing him, but he never has; it would be wrong for a man who has thrived on division to become prime minister of a country as fissile as India. We do not find the prospect of a government led by Congress under Mr Gandhi an inspiring one. But we have to recommend it to Indians as the less disturbing option.
If Congress wins, which is unlikely, it must strive to renew itself and to reform India. Mr Gandhi should make a virtue of his diffidence by stepping back from politics and promoting modernisers to the fore. There are plenty of them and modernity is what Indian voters increasingly demand . If, more probably, victory goes to the BJP, its coalition partners should hold out for a prime minister other than Mr Modi.
And if they still choose Mr Modi? We would wish him well, and we would be delighted for him to prove us wrong by governing India in a modern, honest and fair way. But for now he should be judged on his record—which is that of a man who is still associated with sectarian hatred. There is nothing modern, honest or fair about that. India deserves better.