Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi could be India's next prime minister, but he is far from being Mr Clean.
The world's biggest election began last week, in which more than half a billion Indians will turn out to vote over six weeks. Polls suggest that the incumbent Congress Party will take an unprecedented pummelling, which makes Narendra Modi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), frontrunner to be India's next prime minister.
Modi bears a responsibility for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India but there's nothing like looking like a winner to attract apologists. And the standard apology for Modi comes in two parts. First, there is usually an acknowledgement that the chief minister of Gujarat bears some vague responsibility for the orgy of killing and rape that engulfed his state in 2002 but, um, wasn't that all a long time ago? And hasn't he behaved himself since – or, as the Financial Times put it, done his best to "downplay tensions" between Hindus and Muslims?
This is followed by pointing to Gujarat's rapid economic development and an appeal: Shouldn't the rest of India enjoy some Modinomics? Or, as Gurcharan Das, the former head of Procter & Gamble India, put it in a piece for the Times of India recently: "There will always be a trade-off in values at the ballot box, and those who place secularism above demographic dividend are wrong and elitist."
Frankly, given the enormity of the allegations made against Modi, this is pathetic.
First, the Gujarat massacres have not been consigned to the past. Whatever the claims of his supporters, there has been no "clean chit" for Modi. Courts in India are still hearing allegations made against him. And, second, the much-talked-about Gujarati model may have brought a great deal of money to the state but it has ended up in relatively few hands, without yielding improvements in health, infant mortality or even workers' wages.
Let's look at the carnage of 2002 first. On February 27 that year, a train coach carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire in Godhra station in Gujarat. Fifty-eight people died. Within hours and without a shred of evidence, Modi declared that the Pakistani secret services had been to blame; he then had the charred bodies paraded in the main city of Ahmedabad and let his own party support a state-wide strike for three days.
What followed was mass bloodshed: 1 000 dead according to official estimates, more than 2 000 according to independent tallies. The vast majority of those who died were Muslim. Mobs of men dragged women and young girls out of their homes and raped them.
In 2007, the investigative magazine Tehelka recorded boasts from some of the ringleaders. One, Babu Bajrangi, boasted of how he slit open the womb of a pregnant woman.
When BJP supporters try to dismiss the pogrom of 2002 as ancient and contested history, what they are trying to erase is that epic, shameful violence. Other allegations have been made about Modi's direct involvement in the carnage but the ones I have listed above are not contested by any serious observer.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine if, in the wake of 7/7, in which 52 civilians were killed, London mayor Ken Livingstone had blamed the tube attacks on jihadis, paraded the bodies of the dead up and down Pall Mall and then declared a capital-wide strike.
As Suresh Grover, the human-rights campaigner working for the families of three British citizens who were killed in Gujarat in 2002, puts it, he would have probably been arrested for wilful neglect of duty, hate speech and for inciting violence.
Between 1 000 and 2 000 mostly Muslim people died after Hindu zealots took
to the streets of Ahmedabad in February 2002. (AFP)
Modi, by contrast, said several years ago that he felt the same pain over the bloodshed as a passenger in a car that has just run over a puppy. He referred to the refugee camps set up to shelter some of the 200 000 Muslims who lost their homes as "baby-making factories". And his minister for women is now serving 28 years in prison for murder and conspiracy to murder.
As for the so-called Gujarati development model, there isn't one. The state has enjoyed growth but very little development. Under Modi, it has lagged behind the other major states in tackling infant mortality, in reducing poverty and in increasing literacy. In 2006, there were even more undernourished children in Gujarat than in 1993, which Modi has claimed is because middle-class girls are "beauty conscious".
Big businesses back Modi but that is because he gives them so much. As a string of reports from the independent comptroller and auditor general, among other bodies, point out, his administration has sold off public land dirt cheap to industrialists, provided companies with energy at below-market prices and given them loans at an interest rate of 0.1%. They in return have provided him with sponsorship and rides in their private jets.
Atul Sood, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, has written: "The governance model of Gujarat is all about aggressive implementation of development on behalf of the big private investor. It is a model that works for the rich and against the poor."
And this somehow represents an improvement for India? – © Guardian News & Media 2014