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Washington wonders at India's political divide

By Graham Cooke - posted Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The current attempt by some Indian MPs and activists to petition President Barack Obama not to revoke an eight-year ban on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi visiting the United States, brings into sharp focus the storm surrounding one of the most controversial Indian politicians of recent times.

Modi, almost certain to lead the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the ruling Congress-led coalition in next year's general election, is a touchstone for emotions, some of them violent. Increasingly, it seems there are no grey areas. Indians either love or despise him.

It is not so much that he remains a strident advocate of Hindu nationalism - more than 80 per cent of Indians identify as Hindus and the BJP has won office before on this platform - it is his link with the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in which more than 1000 people, two thirds of them Muslims, died.


Modi, who had only recently taken office, was accused of not doing enough to stop the riots, and in some quarters there were claims that he even encouraged them. Subsequent inquiries have cleared him of the latter charge He has always maintained that he did everything in his power to halt the violence while laying the blame for it firmly at the door of the Muslim community.

This has not stopped the accusations from surfacing periodically and indeed, the latest attack on him is really only a continuation of the tensions between Muslims and Hindus that has plagued the sub-continent since partition.

Initially Modi fought fire with fire, claiming the slurs were part of a campaign by India's English-speaking elite. He would walk out of interviews, ridiculing journalists by claiming deliberate attempts to run down his beloved Gujarat in the eyes of the world.

In recent times, and maybe because he began to see a run for national leadership as a possibility, Modi has sought to moderate his image as a fundamentalist Hindu leader, entertaining the High Commissioner for Bangladesh, a trade delegation from Latin America, attending Muslim ceremonies in Gujarat and promoting his successful program of urban and rural development from which, he stresses, all citizens, no matter their religion, benefit.

His credentials in this area over the past decade have been impressive. Gujarat is one of the few Indian states with reliable electricity and water supplies and one Muslim leader caused a stir earlier this year when he said that Muslims in Gujarat were better off than in many jurisdictions run by the secular Congress Party.

This has contributed to the split in the Indian community which runs through politics, the media and the community in general. For some he is still the epitome of fundamentalist Hinduism that prevents Indians from truly coming together as a nation. For others, many prominent journalists among them, he is the man with all the answers that can unleash the latent power of Indian industry and truly transform the country into an Asian superpower.


Moreover, the campaign to keep the US ban on Modi appears to have hit the rocks as one after the other, supposed signatories to the petition to Obama denied they had signed it. Some said their signatures had been lifted from other petitions, while one, the Congress MP from Goa, Shantaram Naik, claimed outright that his had been forged.

"My views on Narendra Modi are well known and I have criticised him many times, but I did not sign any letter to President Obama," Naik said.

The petition is almost certainly another attempt by Indian-Muslim activists, mostly based in the US, to counter the inevitable moves to lift the ban on Modi as the politician moves closer to being the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in 2014 and perhaps the next Indian Prime Minister.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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