The lunch guests were sworn to secrecy.
The European diplomats gathered at the German ambassador’s residence in New Delhi’s lush green embassy enclave quizzed the guest of honor on everything from the economy and communal violence to his political ambitions. But nobody,the representatives from most of the 28 European Union states agreed,could publicly mention the man they were meeting that day: Narendra Modi,India’s most controversial politician and,possibly,the country’s next prime minister.
It was a moment that captures the paradox at the heart of Modi,and the caution with which the outside world approaches him. The January lunch at Ambassador Michael Steiner’s residence ended a decade-long unofficial EU boycott of the 62-year-old politician,who had just won his third straight term as chief minister of the state of Gujarat.
The boycott stemmed from 2002 riots in Gujarat in which Hindu mobs killed at least 1,000 people,most of them Muslims. Human rights groups and political rivals have long alleged that Modi,a Hindu and a dominant force in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),allowed or even actively encouraged the attacks. Modi has always vehemently denied the charge,and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.
In the decade since,Modi has remade himself as a business-savvy,investor-friendly administrator,a charismatic leader who has presided over a booming economy and lured major foreign and Indian companies to invest in his sprawling coastal state,famed for its spirit of entrepreneurship and as the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi.
Modi is now the head of the BJP’s campaign to win back power in a national election due by next May,and is widely expected to become the party’s prime ministerial candidate. As he has grown in political importance,foreign envoys have begun,cautiously,to woo him. At the same time,many worry that a public appearance with the politician may serve as a kind of endorsement.
Modi is a polarizing figure,evoking visceral reactions across the political spectrum. Critics call him an extremist and a dictator; supporters believe he could lift India’s economy out of the doldrums and make India an Asian superpower.
His profile is far bigger than almost any other politician in India. He attracts media coverage normally reserved for Bollywood A-listers. His face appears on magazines and newspapers and the covers of two new biographies. His comments and public appearances are regular fodder for television news shows.
Modi’s ability to remake himself is central to understanding the man,even if he rejects any suggestion he has changed his image. In a rare interview in late June he insisted that apparent contradictions were no such thing. Sitting in his sparsely decorated office in a heavily guarded compound in the Gujarati capital Gandhinagar,Modi put his hand on his chest to emphasize that point. “I’m a nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I’m a born Hindu. So yes,you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist,” he said. At the same time,”as far as progressive,development-oriented,workaholic … there’s no contradiction between the two. It is one and the same image.”
The hour-long interview with Modi,conducted mostly in Hindi,along with interviews with advisers and aides,paint a picture of a hard-working …continued »