Indian Hard-Liner Narendra Modi Leads in Prime Minister Race
Candidate Tries to Leave Religious Politics Behind and Run on Economic
Development in Election Starting Monday
April 4, 2014 11:23 p.m. ET
DELHI—The man leading polls to become India's next prime minister may finally be
outrunning his past.
thousands of terrified Muslims fled their homes during religious riots in the
state of Gujarat in 2002, the state's Hindu-nationalist chief minister opposed
setting up relief camps, saying these would be "child-making factories."
alluding to polygamy and high birthrates in the Muslim community, Narendra Modi
declared: "There is a need to teach a lesson to those people who are expanding
speech reinforced Mr. Modi's image as a Hindu hard-liner. Three years later, the
U.S. denied Mr. Modi a visa, responding to allegations that he hadn't done
enough to stop the 2002 rioting, in which mobs killed more than 1,000 people,
most of them Muslims.
in national elections that start Monday, Mr. Modi has sought to distance himself
from religious politics. Facing off against Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion
of India's powerful Nehru-Gandhi political clan, whose Congress party has
governed India since 2004, Mr. Modi has positioned himself as a champion of
economic development and no-nonsense government. He cites growth and
industrialization under his leadership in Gujarat and says all of India will
enjoy the same if he becomes premier.
am known to be a Hindu-nationalist leader," Mr. Modi said in one of his first
speeches after becoming the prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata
Party, or BJP. But "my real thought is toilets first, temples later."
message has resonated with voters. Despite Mr. Modi's sectarian baggage, opinion
polls show the BJP well ahead of Congress, its main rival. A survey by the Pew
Research Center found that 63% of respondents want a BJP-led government, while
just 19% favor Congress.
Modi's critics say his hard-line affiliations make him unfit to lead a large,
profoundly diverse country such as India. Hindus make up 80% of India's
population and Muslims 13%.
this week in the technology hub of Gurgaon, on New Delhi's outskirts, Mr. Modi
stepped out of a helicopter and greeted thousands of cheering fans. Some wore
paper masks bearing his bearded, bespectacled likeness. Others hailed him with a
chant used to worship the Hindu god Shiva.
in every home, toilets in every home, education for children, hospitals for the
elderly. Brothers and sisters, can't we do this in our country?" Mr. Modi asked
the rally. "We need to make this happen together."
supporter uses a 'Modi Fan' to take respite from the heat in Sivasagar, last
815 million eligible voters are going to the polls at a time of growing national
dissatisfaction. To many, corruption seems to have penetrated public life at all
levels. The economy, rocket-powered not long ago, has slowed. The rupee tumbled
more than 20% last summer, and inflation is now 8%. Since a fatal gang rape in
2012, India has become known around the world as a dangerous place for women.
Indians worry about an assertive China next door, and many feel their country
has lost influence on the world stage.
is an election of "anger with an element of hope," one senior BJP politician,
Arun Jaitley, said in the past week.
India's exasperated middle class, Mr. Modi's brawny style is a direct antidote
to a Congress party some perceive as feckless. The BJP is expected to win big
among urban professionals who believe Mr. Modi can imbue India with a new
self-confidence and ambition that matches their own.
Modi is also the darling of Indian business. Indian stocks have been hitting
highs as investors bet on a Modi victory.
Modi's tack to the center and the growing likelihood voters will reward him for
it are getting Washington's attention, too. In February Nancy Powell, then U.S.
ambassador to India, ended a long U.S. diplomatic freeze by meeting with Mr. Modi.