Before heading to India’s snow-capped Himalayas to study Hinduism at age 17, Narendra Modi burned family photos, discarded most of his clothes and bent to touch his mother’s feet to receive a blessing.
“He treated his departure like a monk would, as though he was leaving to become an ascetic,” his brother, Prahalad Modi, 62, said in his cement-block tire shop in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the western state of Gujarat. “He had been told by his guru that he must shed all material possessions to be devoted to the cause of Hindu nationalism.”
Almost five decades later, India’s incoming prime minister still calls himself a Hindu nationalist. He’s also a friend of billionaires and a champion of business in Gujarat, where he’s served as chief minister since 2001. Economic growth rates have outpaced the national average in all but one year in that time and per-capita income has quadrupled.
Modi, 63, will take office armed with what may be the largest parliamentary mandate in 30 years after the Bharatiya Janata Party obtained a majority in parliament, defeating the Congress party. The country is waiting to see which Modi will emerge: the Hindu activist faulted for failing to stop 2002 anti-Muslim riots or the business-friendly son of a tea vendor who is focused on reviving Asia’s third-biggest economy.
“I don’t see how the two are compatible,” said Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington. Pursuing a Hindu nationalism agenda “is bound to produce communal violence. If you can’t keep social peace in India, it’s going to scare off investors, which will stump the entire Indian growth story.”
The BJP trumpeted its win as a vindication of Modi’s promises of economic development that cut across India’s religious, caste and class divisions. Voters across the nation expressed their disapproval of slowing growth and corruption. In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state and home to more Muslims than any other, Modi’s party was leading in 73 of 80 seats, up from the 10 it won in the 2009 election.
Hinduism, practiced by 80 percent of Indians as of 2001, is entrenched in scriptures of mythology that offer stories of various deities and a way of life. The faith offers no method of conversion and encourages Hindus to follow values such as purity and self-restraint. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist group Modi belonged to, seeks to teach Hinduism in schools and spread its values across the nation.
To many Muslims -- 13 percent of India’s population -- that message is one of exclusion, intolerance and fear. In 1990, Modi addressed a crowd of Hindu followers in Uttar Pradesh days before a group there demolished a 16th-century mosque in a cascading series of violence that ended in sectarian riots and 2,000 deaths.
Taxi driver Yasin Khan Pathan, 45, a Muslim who, like Modi’s brother, lives in Ahmedabad, won’t even approach the local BJP office to ask for help with his neighborhood’s crumbling streets and inadequate sewage system. It’s not far, just on the other side of a 20-foot wall dividing Hindus from Muslims in his community. But he’s afraid.
“We are a defeated community,” he said as dust from the construction site of a luxury apartment complex drifts over from the Hindu side of the wall. “Obviously, we are scared of Modi becoming prime minister. Our greatest fear now is that Modi will turn the rest of India into Gujarat. He won’t lift Muslims out of poverty, he’ll lift Muslims out of India.”
Such BJP affiliates as the RSS and the World Hindu Council have pinned their hopes on Modi to deliver a Hindu nation, said Rajendra Singh Pankaj, national secretary of the council. The party manifesto pledges to impose a uniform civil code that would come into conflict with Sharia, or Muslim, law, and try to build a temple named for Lord Ram at the site of the demolished mosque.
“The kind of nationalist baggage Modi carries, it will be interesting to see how he deals with those fringe Hindu groups,” said Sudha Pai, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “If there’s even a hint of communal tensions in the country, all eyes will be on him to see which Modi emerges.”
BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar blamed concerns of rising nationalism under Modi on “Congress propaganda.” Modi will represent all of India, not just the Hindu majority, Javadekar said on May 14.
Modi learned the damaging effect of sectarian violence first-hand shortly after he became Gujarat’s chief minister, said Pravin Ratilal Maniar, who’s been general secretary for the RSS in Gujarat for 13 years. After Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 that left about 1,000 people dead, investment proposals in the state fell almost 7 percent the next year.
To rebut accusations that he failed to prevent the riots from spreading, Modi began promoting the state’s economy, Maniar said in his office in the city of Rajkot. Modi was influential, for instance, in luring investment from such companies as Tata Motors Ltd. and Adani Enterprises Ltd., as he reminds participants at his biennial investor summit in Gujarat.
Since 2001, the state’s per-capita income has almost quadrupled to 61,220 rupees ($1,042). It rose at a faster pace than the national average, which doubled to 38,856 rupees. Economic growth has topped India’s in 11 of the last 12 years for which data is available.
Gujarat drew 1.3 trillion rupees of planned foreign and domestic investment -- about 22 percent of India’s total -- in the year ending March 31, 2012.
“He provided Gujarat with India’s first real free-market economy that led to new infrastructure and job creation,” said Subrata Mukherjee, a retired professor of political science at Delhi University. “That’s what India has to look forward to. Everything else is interference.”
To Ghanshyam Shah, a retired professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of “Development and Deprivation in Gujarat,” the two issues can’t be separated.
“There really are two sides to the same Modi,” Shah said in his Ahmedabad home. “There’s the right-wing, Hindu nationalist whom followers see as a savior. And there’s the frugal, capitalist Modi credited with Gujarat’s growth. He genuinely believes the two can co-exist.”
Born in the village of Vadnagar, almost 50 miles north of Gujarat’s capital of Gandhinagar, Modi was raised in a lower-middle income home by his tea-seller father and devout Hindu mother. When he wasn’t at school or at the local RSS unit, he was at the train station helping run the tea stand, said childhood friend Sudhir Joshi, a general physician who still lives within a mile of Modi’s old neighborhood.
Modi left home for the Himalayas after he had married the woman he’d become engaged to as a child. It wasn’t until Modi filed an affidavit as part of his candidacy for parliament that he acknowledged the wife he’d left behind. Almost half of Indian women age 20 to 24 say they were wed before the age of 18, according to data from the United Nations Population Fund, among the highest rates in the world.
By 1971, Modi was back in Gujarat playing a key role in the RSS’s opposition movement against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Within a decade, he was running RSS missions in Gujarat and on his way to becoming a leader within the organization.
Although his father’s forest-green stall has been chained shut, Vadnagar residents have come to support him by spray painting “vote for Narendrabhai” in Gujarati across the cemented rear panel of the stall, said Sanjaybhai Patel, one of the station administrators.
“He’s like a god to these people,” said physician Joshi, who declined to share whom he voted for when Gujarat went to the polls. “For the people who live in these narrow streets, it’s empowering just to know that one of them could be prime minister.”
Modi’s supporters include some Muslims, especially across northern India, who have partnered with the BJP to ensure the party wins the absolute mandate needed to overhaul the economy, said Zafar Sareshwala, a Muslim businessman in Gujarat. He had prepared to press charges against Modi for the 2002 riots before a private meeting with the chief minister in 2003.
“Modi is the best chance for progress in this country, and that includes Muslims,” said Sareshwala, who said his family business has been set on fire in every state sectarian riot since 1969. “He’s not the Hindu dictator which he’s been painted as. I see business, I see wealth and I see growth in Gujarat. I don’t see violence and hate. That’s what Modi will bring to India.”
Hindu nationalism remains part of Modi’s agenda as he prepares to lead India to 2019. On April 23, a 3D hologram of Modi appeared in front of millions of voters at rallies occurring simultaneously across India.
“Give me your blessings,” Modi said. “There are some people who are picked to go through the tough times and god favors such people. I feel that maybe god has picked me for this task and now I only need your blessings.”