The question always comes up in New Delhi these days, somewhere between polite introductions and drinks: What would the reign of Narendra Modi, who seems increasingly likely to be the next prime minister, mean for India?
One man, pro-business and a glass of whiskey in hand at the club, told me recently that Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will bring needed centralization to a government that at times seems unable to impose its writ. Another—a highly educated liberal in socks, slacks, and polo shirt on the sofa just before lunch—wondered aloud whether the nation is forsaking its secular mooring for a dangerous populist.
Prediction in politics, especially in a nation as large and complex as India, is bound to be wrong much of the time. But public remarks by BJP officials and conservative Hindus apparently taking note of political winds are worth considering. (To be sure, there have been sharp words from both sides. For example, video surfaced of a candidate from the ruling Congress Party saying that he would “chop” Modi into tiny pieces.) Beneath the back and forth of explanation and disavowal, the consistency and vehemence of the messaging suggest an approach that, in a nation with a history of sectarian bloodshed, has some worried:
1. A conservative Hindu politician told a crowd that there are ways to discourage Muslims from purchasing property in Hindu neighborhoods. According to one account, Pravin Togadia allegedly met with protestors outside a home owned by a Muslim businessman and gave the occupant 48 hours to vacate the house. Togadia advised his audience to use stones, tires, and tomatoes, according to the Times of India. Togadia disputed that version of events and claimed through an online post that he was only offering advice on using the legal and governmental channels “if they felt that they are being forced into any selling of their houses.” (The newspaper subsequently said it has video confirming the initial report.)
The anecdote takes on broader significance for two reasons: The incident occurred in the western state of Gujarat, where some 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, were killed in brutal riots that included death-by-sword in 2002. The chief minister of Gujarat at the time of that bloodshed, as is still the case, was Narendra Modi. But as ever in Indian politics, there are caveats: A Supreme Court-appointed panel found no evidence that Modi’s decisions prevented the 2002 riot victims from receiving help. While Modi and Togadia have a shared background in Hindu nationalist politics, the two men do not now get along well.
2. A BJP parliament candidate informed a rally that those who do not support Modi will soon have no place in India. With senior BJP leadership standing by, Giriraj Singh said that Pakistan, the Muslim nation to the west, is where such people belong. BJP officials were quick to publicly express displeasure with Singh’s remarks, but he did not back down: “I stand by my statement that those trying their best to stop Modi from coming to power have no place in India and should go to Pakistan.”
3. A senior Modi aide was accused of telling voters they could get revenge by voting for Modi. Amit Shah was speaking in a north India district earlier this month near the site of riots last year that included murder and reports of gang rape. One account described how a “crowd of Hindu men came brandishing guns, swords and machetes, shouting that Muslims should go either to Pakistan or Kabristan (graveyard).”
4. Modi has signaled his desire to distance his campaign from militant sentiment and focus on shared national goals. As he tweeted on Tuesday:
However, many still point to his remarks during an interview with Reuters last year about the 2002 riots:
“Another thing, any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”
There was an expression of sadness in those words. And there was, too, the unavoidable fact that he’d compared the dead to dogs.