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The Extreme Makeover of India's (Possible) Next Leader

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That Narendra Modi was featured on the cover of Time (March, South Asia edition), around the tenth anniversary of an anti-Muslim massacre in the Indian state of Gujarat, was not surprising. Sparking outrage was the headline (Modi Means Business), which was viewed by many as an extreme image makeover for India's most divisive politician. It was under his watch that an anti-Muslim carnage started on February 28, 2002 and continued unabated for the next three months. The violence was justified as a reaction to events that took place the previous day when 59 Hindu pilgrims, who were returning after paying homage to the site of a destroyed sixteenth century mosque, were killed by a fire that started in a section of their train. To many Hindus, the fire was a deliberate act by a mob of Muslims. To most Muslims, the fire was an accident. Two official commissions (Nanavati and Banerjee) yielded conclusions that favored one narrative over the other, leading detractors to charge that the commissions were politically tainted.

What is incontrovertible is that within hours of the tragic train fire, an organized retaliation against Muslims spread across Gujarat like wildfire. The ferocity of the carnage was unprecedented, even for a country with episodic spates of sectarian violence. By the time the bloodshed had stopped 2,000 people were brutally killed, many mutilated. Women were raped before being burnt alive. Muslims, who make up 9 percent of Gujarat's population, witnessed the entire state security apparatus standing still while vigilantes went on a rampage destroying 5,000 homes, 500 places of worship and 10,000 shops. Over 150,000 Muslims were displaced, with 16,000 remaining so a decade later. An iconic picture of a Muslim man by photographer Arko Datta epitomized the fear that had gripped the state.

Although some of the rioters have been held responsible, the state government under the leadership of Narendra Modi has so far escaped unscathed. Not a single high level official paid the price for their abject failure to maintain law and order. To the contrary, the electorate has repeatedly serenaded Modi with victories at the ballot box. Despite his obvious failures, the United States Congressional Research Service, a bi-partisan think tank whose research is advisory to the U.S. Congress, is speculating that Modi stands on the threshold of becoming India's next leader. Latest polling shows Modi beating both Rahul Gandhi (scion of the famous Nehru family) and current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by double-digit margins.

The battle lines for the 2014 parliamentary elections are being drawn with an extreme image makeover for Modi. Leading the charge is the Washington-based PR giant APCO, which has also serviced other controversial clients such as former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Russia's Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The core narrative in Modi's extreme image makeover is that he is as an economic miracle worker, with a clean anti-corruption record in a country where corruption remains an anathema. The story in Time quotes Modi as saying, "It is not luck. It's a carefully devised process."

But Modi's choreographed routine has several discordant notes to it. Abusaleh Shariff, Chief Economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, India's premier research institution, asserts that masking the apparent prosperity of Gujarat are high levels of poverty and great income inequality. Hunger levels in Gujarat are shockingly high, with only three other Indian states faring worse. Economic and social minorities continue to remain marginalized. Poverty rates for Muslims in Gujarat are eight times higher than Hindus. Only 12 percent of Muslims have a bank account and a paltry 2.6 percent are able to secure financial loans. According to data from India's Planning Commission, a whopping 31.8 percent of people in Gujarat are poor, leading many social NGOs to question the veracity of Modi's "Vibrant Gujarat" slogan.

Contrary to the carefully cultivated image of Modi's business acumen lie an inconvenient truth -- other Indian states such as Maharashtra and Delhi outclass Gujarat in drawing foreign direct investments, often by 3 to 5 folds. Modi has reaped the benefit of ruling a state whose people have always been known for their business perspicacity and industriousness. Gujarat's economic growth has generally ranked above India's national average, both before and after Modi. Recently, Modi's image of a clean politician has also taken a hit. Three major scams have come to light. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India has charged the Modi government with massive financial irregularities worth 167.07 billion rupees (approximately $3 billion).

Earlier this year, the Gujarat High Court criticized Modi for his inaction in stopping the violence of 2002 and ordered the restoration of the many houses of worship, which were damaged during the carnage. Failure to protect places of worship and shrines, which are invaluable to India's cultural heritage, is a flagrant violation of the Hague Convention of 1954.

All people of conscience, who deeply care about India's secular and pluralistic character, are relentlessly demanding justice and remain doggedly in opposition to any attempts that may give India's most controversial political figure an extreme image makeover. American lawmakers Keith Ellison and Frank Wolf have introduced resolutions condemning Modi and held congressional hearings respectively. The State Department continues to uphold its visa ban on Modi.

Underneath Modi's economic success lay a story of brutality and systematic marginalization of economic and social minorities. To quote Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, "Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." The Indian national motto succinctly states, Satyameva Jayate -- Truth Stands Invincible. Nothing less than a major truth and reconciliation effort can set Gujarat free of one of the most shameful episodes in its modern history.

[Parvez Ahmed is an Indian-American who teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.]