Editorial Board

Modi, India's Favorite Son, Needs a Voice

Narendra Modi is expected to win upcoming parliamentary elections in India. Before the campaign ends, he needs to tell Indians how he would address an array of national problems, and why they should ignore his behavior during the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
Narendra Modi's fans say he's a doer. So what does he plan to do? Photographer: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

The only open question in India's upcoming parliamentary elections, judging by the polls, seems to be how wide Narendra Modi's margin of victory will be. Naturally, other issues are more important, and it's time Modi, the controversial Hindu nationalist candidate, addressed them.

The race is truly Modi's to lose. Indians have tired of the ruling Congress party, which has presided over an era of declining growth and huge corruption scandals. Congress standard-bearer Rahul Gandhi, an uninspired campaigner, has thus far given voters little reason to change their minds. Anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal, founder of the Aam Aadmi ("Common Man") Party, has generated more excitement with his clean-government crusade. But he will at best play kingmaker in the coalition haggling almost certain to take place after results are declared on May 16.

Modi's pitch to voters has very little to do with any policies espoused by his Bharatiya Janata Party -- which can be vague, contradictory, and in some ways not all that different from those of Congress. His appeal rests almost entirely on the reputation he's built up over more than a decade at the helm of Gujarat, traditionally one of India's most successful states. To fans, he is a doer -- a bureaucracy-smashing strongman who can revive growth by sheer strength of will.

It's still not clear, however, what this doer wants to do as prime minister. Modi's speeches are larded with buzzwords and catchphrases: "per drop more crop" or "tourism unites, terrorism divides." He talks vaguely of "smart" cities and bullet trains, of reducing corruption and making state enterprises more efficient. All worthy goals, of course; what voters need to know is how Modi would achieve them.

The right reforms could create an additional 40 million nonfarm jobs by 2022, according to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute. But they will require hard choices, not simply an ability to push investment deals through. Whoever becomes prime minister will have to address fundamental questions of labor and land reforms, the states' relationships with the central government, taxes, infrastructure investment, health care and the yawning demand for vocational training. The new leader will have to lay the groundwork for a true manufacturing sector, rebalance investment in agriculture and vastly improve the delivery of government services. Ideas and policies to meet all these challenges exist, but Modi has avoided choosing among them -- not least because of differences of opinion within his party.

Modi's second, and arguably more important, failing concerns the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and several women raped while police and state officials stood by. Modi, whose base includes the Hindu militant groups accused of leading the attacks, has never forthrightly apologized nor taken responsibility for the brutality on his watch.

When the subject comes up, Modi's supporters cite the "clean chit" given to him by Indian judges, who ruled that he had not prevented aid from reaching Muslim riot victims. That doesn't remotely lessen his responsibility for the officials under him, some of whom have received prison sentences for their role in the violence. Modi himself refuses even to entertain questions about the incident. On March 3, he canceled an appearance at a town hall where he could not control the questioning. This is cowardice, not leadership.

Modi is essentially telling voters that they can count on him to get the economy moving again, and should therefore drop any lingering suspicion that he is an autocrat or an anti-Muslim bigot. Indians are entitled to know how he plans to fulfill his promises.