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5 Reasons Why Narendra Modi Leading India Is So Controversial

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NARENDRA MODI
ASSOCIATED PRESS

As the world's largest-ever democratic vote wrapped up on Monday, a controversial politician is poised to take the reins of power, after exit polls showed his opposition party trouncing the incumbents.

After more than half a billion Indians cast their ballots, the latest tallies suggest the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is set to win between 248 and 282 seats in the parliamentary election, with the ruling Congress party set to take 92-102 seats. Final results are expected on Friday.

A BJP victory could pave the way for its party leader Narendra Modi to become prime minister of the world's most populous democracy, a rising economic power, and a nuclear-armed Western ally.

Modi has positioned himself as a pragmatic technocrat, focusing his election campaign on reviving India's stagnant economy, cleaning up a corrupt government, and a tough stance on national security. The candidate also distanced himself from his party's right flank, assuring voters that while he is a proud Hindu nationalist, his priority is "toilets first, temples later."

But his rise has alarmed many inside and outside India. To understand why Narendra Modi arouses such fear despite his evident popularity, here are some of the disturbing views ascribed to the BJP leader.

1. He threatened to deport Muslims of Bangladeshi origin en masse.

The Hindu nationalist movement emerged during British colonial rule over India, vowing to defend Hindu values from Western influence while at times also casting India's minority religions as a threat. The BJP is the latest incarnation of the movement's political wing and the party headed a coalition government from 1998-2004.

While having vowed that his Hindu nationalism will not get in the way of being a prime minister for all Indians, critics point out that Modi's rhetoric has at times played directly into the Muslim-Hindu divide. For example, the candidate has repeatedly promised to crack down on alleged "Bangladeshi immigrants," whose presence has proven a flash point for religious violence in Indian regions near the Muslim-majority country.

Modi told a recent rally that after the election he "will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with their bags and baggages.” The politician's threats affect several million Muslims of Bangladeshi origin who have settled in India over generations and might end up stateless if Bangladesh refused their return, Reuters notes.

Just this month, tribal militants in Assam massacred more than 40 Muslim villagers, who they resent as Bangladeshi settlers, in a dispute over the elections. Reuters reports that Modi had delivered an anti-immigrant speech nearby just days before, and while there is no evidence he inflamed the situation further, his rhetoric does little to calm thousands of Muslims who fled in fear after the massacre.

rashtriya swayamsevak sangh
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members at a public meeting of the organization in Bangalore, India, Nov. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

In addition, some are concerned about Modi's connections to groups accused of stoking religious tensions. According to the New York Times, Modi built his career with the hardline Hindu volunteer brigade Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an ideological movement once banned for violence that campaigns against policies it regards as pro-Muslim.

And Modi has taken up some of their grievances, for example in his crusade against India's Muslim-dominated beef industry. The Financial Times notes that his rhetoric is dangerous because the killing of cows, which are sacred to Hindus, has prompted deadly violence in the past.

2. He compared his regret over a religious massacre to the sadness of running over a puppy.

Looming large over Modi's election campaign was his role as chief minister of the state of Gujarat during one of the most bloody episodes in India's recent history, and his refusal to apologize for the tragedy.

gujarat riot 2002
A mob of Hindus is blocked from attacking Muslims in Ahmadabad, India, March 1, 2002. (Ami Vitale/Getty Images)

In 2002, dozens of Hindu pilgrims were burnt to death on a train in Gujarat state, sending furious Hindu mobs on a killing rampage. Some 1,000 to 2,000 Muslims were massacred in just a few days, prompting a cycle of reprisal killings.

The response of Modi's state government to the riots has plagued his political career. According to British officials and human rights groups, the violence had been planned well in advance by Hindu extremists with the support of the state government. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some police officers stood by or took part in the violence. A British report leaked to the BBC warned that Muslim-Hindu reconciliation would be impossible while Modi remained in power.

Modi denied involvement and subsequent legal inquiries cleared him of criminal responsibility, despite criticizing him for failing to calm the violence or pursue justice in its aftermath, Foreign Policy notes.

gujarat 2002
A mob sets fire to vehicles in the Ahmadabad, India, Feb. 28, 2002. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)

Many are troubled that Modi has not apologized and now even refuses to discuss the episode. When he did make a rare comment about the massacre in a 2013 interview with Reuters, his comment caused further outrage. Asked if he regretted what happened, Modi said: "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."

Modi says he is the target of a media smear campaign and his comments were misunderstood. Critics say he is pandering to Hindu nationalists by defying international concerns and the fears of India's 150 million Muslims.

3. His political rivals are enemy agents working for Pakistan.

Modi has promised to take a tough stand towards India's arch-rival Pakistan and has labelled his political opponents as traitors.

In March, Modi accused members of a rival party of being "agents of Pakistan and enemy of India," for their views on the disputed territory of Kashmir, Outlook India reported. A party colleague warned voters to back Modi or go to Pakistan.

india nuclear weapons
Indian forces patrol the border fence with Pakistan, Suchit-Garh, Jan. 11, 2013. (TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

Tensions have repeatedly erupted between the nuclear-armed neighbors since independence and partition in 1947. Modi's party had already caused some panic by pledging in its 2014 election manifesto to review and update the country's nuclear policy. In response, Modi had to clarify that he would not change India's "no first use" policy -- its commitment not to use nuclear weapons except if under attack.

And during the campaign, Pakistan's interior minister accused Modi of trying to provoke war when he vowed to hunt down a fugitive terror suspect inside Pakistan.

However, some Pakistani officials hope that a strong leader like Modi would actually be better able to restart peace talks between the rival nations.

4. Malnutrition is high because girls don't want to get fat.

Modi has positioned himself as a champion of women's rights, and appears to be popular with women voters.

But not everyone is convinced. The party leader kicked up a storm in 2012 when he explained Gujarat's high malnutrition rates as due to the "beauty-conscious" middle class. "If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they’ll have a fight. She’ll tell her mother, 'I won’t drink milk. I’ll get fat,'" Modi reasoned in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

women modi
Indian women attend Modi's fast for communal harmony in Godhra, Jan. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Beyond such remarks, women's rights advocates have criticized both the BJP and the Congress party for not doing enough to tackle violence and discrimination against women.

Meanwhile, Quartz points out that Modi's record on women's rights as state governor had been mixed -- crimes against women remain low in Gujarat, but so does female participation in the work force. Critics say Gujarat has vastly under-resourced measures against domestic violence, noting that the state's largest city had just one officer dealing with spousal abuse -- at one point with a workload of 800 cases.

Some advocates also warn that Modi's encouragement of chauvinist nationalism is bad news for those seeking a cultural shift towards women's empowerment.

5. Big business is the silver bullet for India's development problems.

Modi presided over a tripling of per-capita income in Gujarat since 2001, and has promised similar economic miracles across India by cracking down on corruption and pursuing smart business policies. Modi contrasts his clean record with the relentless graft scandals besetting his Congress party rivals.

But some critics say Modi himself is too close to business leaders and has favored big industry at the expense of local communities. Writer and campaigner Arundhati Roy warns that businesses are counting on Modi to crack down on communities protesting the damaging effects of large mining and infrastructure projects.

Other skeptics point to disparities in those benefiting from Gujarat's wealth, claiming that Modi's administration underinvested in education and sanitation. Quartz explains that during Gujarat's economic boom under Modi, health and quality of life indicators did not consistently improve, for example child mortality rates remained disturbingly high.

This post has been corrected to reflect that child mortality rates stayed disturbingly high, not low, in Gujarat.

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