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The rise and rise of Narendra Modi

By Graham Cooke - posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013


The man many believe will be India's next Prime Minister is on a roll. In December Narendra Modi won his third straight election as Chief Minister of Gujarat, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) crushing the Congress-led opposition in a landslide. This month in the state capital of Gandhinagar he presided over the sixth 'Vibrant Gujarat Business Summit' in which industrial leaders and foreign diplomats queued up to sing his praises.

Tycoons such as Anil Ambani, chair of ADAG, one of the country's largest conglomerates, who described him as a visionary on a par of with Mahatma Gandhi and a 'king of kings'; and, less extravagantly by Adi Godrej of the Confederation of Indian Industries who said Modi's 'futuristic approach' had made Gujarat one of the best investment destinations in the country.

Another, Sanjay Lalbhai, chairman of textile maker Arvind Ltd., openly urged Modi to enter the national arena.

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"We are dealing with him as the Chief Minister of Gujarat as of now, but I am sure he has the skills required at the national level also, the decisiveness, the leadership," Lalbhai said in an interview.

Also present – although careful not to offer any direct praise for Modi – was the British High Commissioner, James Bevan – a sure sign that one of India's largest trading partners sees a need to engage with the country's rising political star.

Even with the solid support of the industrial barons and tacit recognition by the diplomatic community, Modi was keeping his powder dry when it came to talk of national politics, deflecting all questions on the subject and even issuing a personal invitation to business leaders to attend the next Gujarat business summit in 2015, a year after India's scheduled general election.

But Modi (62) still has time on his side and may perhaps wish to wait a few more months during which the focus will remain on the troubled ruling Congress-led coalition in New Delhi. After almost a decade in power the once-popular Government of Manmohan Singh has become embroiled in a series of corruption scandals involving the sale of telecommunications licences, bribes to MPs to support the Government in crucial debates and irregularities in contracts awarded for the preparation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, while the poor management of the Games themselves was a public relations disaster.

Added to this is a slowing in India's once spectacular economic growth and in a further setback for the Government, Army Chief V.K. Singh went public with complaints that India's defences were largely obsolete and 'woefully inadequate' despite a multi-billion dollar procurement drive, an especially sensitive topic given neighbouring China's projected military expansion. The row played into the hands of the BJP opposition which has a militarily strong India as one of the main planks of its platform.

With Manmohan Singh, now 80 and in poor health, preparing to step down, the leadership of Congress at the next election is open for question. The popular belief is that party elders will turn once again to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has already provided three former Prime Ministers. However, the current candidate, Rahul Gandhi, is a backbench MP who has never held Ministerial Office, and seems ambivalent towards undergoing any kind of apprenticeship that would prepare him for running the country.

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Some commentators are saying Rahul has no stomach for leadership and is resisting being pushed forward by his mother, Sonia, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the power behind the scenes in the Congress Party.

However, despite the recent adulation by the country's corporate elite, Modi does have his detractors. Writing in the Hindustan Times, commentator Aakar Patel says the Gujarat Chief Minister has an inability to share power and has no appetite for building consensus - as an example he holds all of the state's top ministries apart from finance - and has poor understanding of economics, which is Manmohan Singh's strength.

Congress will no doubt seek to emphasise the BJP's origins as a sectarian party which will put the interests of Hindu nationalism before the good of the country as a whole. Modi will also be attacked over his role in the widespread Hindu-Muslim rioting and deaths that followed the 2002 Godhra train massacre in which 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.


He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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