Modi Holograms Sweep Gujarat as Poll Marks Bid to Lead India

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister. Photographer: Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Twenty-six holograms of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi strode onto stages across the Indian state last month as he sought re-election, a sample of the savvy that makes him a contender for national leader.

A computer-generated image of Modi at a Nov. 29 rally in Dholka was met with a forest of hands making victory signs and thunderous chants for him to become prime minister. With his gray hair slicked back and dressed in a knee-length shirt and saffron scarf, he fired off digs at the Congress party, which leads the federal government, and extolled his own record.

“I’m delivering this speech in 3D to show you that India is not being left behind, that we are world leaders in technology,” Modi said, using a technique similar to that employed in digitally resurrecting the late rapper Tupac Shakur. “I’m again setting a trend that the rest of India will follow.”

A bigger share of the vote this month in the state the 62-year-old has ruled for 11 years would help counter concern in his Bharatiya Janata Party he’s too polarizing to maintain allies in the national campaign due by 2014. Modi’s terms in office span some of the worst religious rioting in India’s history, and the championing of a business-friendly approach that has helped drive the fastest growing state economy, outside of two smaller ones abutting Nepal.

’Divisive’ Tag

“As Modi marches on Delhi, he’s moving into the center,” said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, managing director of New Delhi-based Development and Research Services, who advises the BJP on election policy. “The biggest threat to his chances of leading India is that he’s seen as too divisive and too authoritarian.”

Opinion polls signal a Modi romp in Gujarat. The BJP will secure 124 seats in the 182-member assembly in the vote that began today, an increase of seven, according to a Nov. 24 survey by Nielsen Holdings NV and ABP News. Congress may win 51 seats, the poll of 16,384 voters in 91 constituencies found. It gave no margin of error. Results from the two-stage vote, and another in Himachal Pradesh state, will be counted Dec. 20.

Ballots will be cast at more than 21,000 polling stations in 87 constituencies today amid tight security, the Press Trust of India said. The second round of voting is on Dec. 17.

“Hologram technology has never been used before in India,” said Satish Misra, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi who has been following the South Asian nation’s politics for three decades. “It improves your reach and attracts the curious, but it costs a lot of money.”

Growth Outpacing

Modi is a politician who arouses strong reaction in the nation of 1.2 billion people, and lots of interest. To followers, he’s a cult figure who dragged Gujarat from the ashes of the 2002 rioting, wooing businesses and cutting red tape and corruption. Modi’s office didn’t reply to requests for an interview.

Gujarat’s economy has grown an annual 10.2 percent on average over the last decade, against 7.8 percent for the national economy. Under Modi, Gujarat has raised power generation capacity more than five-fold and claims to be the only state in India to have a surplus of electricity.

Colleagues whose seniority makes them prospective candidates for the nation’s top office praise Modi. Sushma Swaraj, BJP leader in the lower house of the federal parliament and former chief minister of Delhi, and Lal Krishna Advani, a former deputy prime minister, have extolled the qualities they say make Modi fit to be premier.

The BJP last led the national government from 1998 to 2004. H.D. Deve Gowda is the only serving regional leader to have become India’s prime minister, in 1996-97. Four other premiers ran states earlier in their careers.

Religious Riots

Claims that Modi failed to stop rampaging Hindu mobs as they burned their way through neighborhoods in 2002 still threaten his emergence as a national leader. The violence left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims. Many were set on fire, and women were raped, India’s National Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch found.

The carnage, which left Modi barred from the U.S. and some European nations, followed the killing of Hindu activists in a train fire, a blaze for which Muslims were later found guilty.

A Supreme Court-appointed panel investigating one documented incident found no evidence that Modi took decisions to prevent assistance from reaching those being attacked. Maya Kodnani, a former Modi aide, was jailed in August for her role in the murder of 97 people in a suburb of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital.

Boycott Ends

Modi’s administration said it did its best to maintain law and order during the rioting. Modi hasn’t apologized for the riots, saying “one only has to ask for forgiveness if one is guilty of a crime,” in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this year, according to the paper.

The U.K. in October ended a boycott of Modi, saying it wanted to discuss business and justice for British citizens killed in the riots. “Better late than never,” Modi said on Twitter.

While the BJP and its parent organization, the pro-Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have defended Modi, the allies they need in India’s splintered federal system may assess him as too great a risk.

“Unless Modi comes back with a huge majority, it may be easier to look at someone else,” said Prem Shankar Jha, an independent political analyst in New Delhi. “If he was appointed, it would be very hard for the BJP to keep its flock together. It would be an incredible gamble.”

The chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, has signaled he’ll quit the BJP-led opposition bloc if Modi becomes its face.

Shifting Tack

Modi has sought to play down the association with Hindu nationalism -- the political force that propelled the BJP to power in the late 1990s. While earlier campaigns were laced with communal barbs and delivered votes, Modi has fought this one on his economic record.

Standing on a newly built Ahmedabad riverfront, where locals take boat rides and stroll on dates, Satish Nadar, 27, a call-center worker said he’s switching his vote to the BJP.

“The most important thing is Modi is taking Gujarat in the right direction and under him my job prospects are better,” said Nadar, who works for a unit of Vodafone Plc. “I remember the impact of the riots but we have to move on.”

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration struggling to reassert its reform credentials, and beset by economic growth at a three-year low, Modi has been hailed by Tata Group Chairman Ratan Tata, and Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd., both of which have investments in Gujarat.

Corporate Praise

“What makes Gujarat such a unique place to invest in India is the excellent infrastructure,” said Parimal Nathwani, president for corporate affairs at Reliance. “This shows the advantage of a strong government that can follow through on its promises.”

Modi built on the gains of earlier administrations in the historically entrepreneurial state, simplifying investment approval processes, guaranteeing electricity and constructing roads and ports, developments that set Gujarat apart, according to a 2011 study by the Asian Development Bank.

Gujarat’s achievements in improving basic services have been less impressive, according to an India Today survey last month. It ranks 12th out of the largest 20 provinces in improvements to its education system and 9th in health care.

Even so, with about 5 percent of India’s population, Gujarat generates 22 percent of its exports and 11.5 percent of the country’s manufacturing, state government data show.

On election posters around the state, Modi’s is the only face. At the rally in Dholka, Modi through his hologram dismissed his critics.

“Don’t listen to the lies, it is a sign of their desperation,” Modi said to applause. “Give me a chance and we can reap the rewards together.”

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