This 26th of May, a 21st century Nero -- the man widely believed to be the mastermind of a 2002 pogrom that left thousands dead and many more mutilated -- has become the head of the world's largest democracy.
Narendra Modi, the son of a tea-seller in a small town of Gujarat, India, became affiliated with an extremist Hindu organization, the Sangh Parivar, during his teenage years. He soon rose through the ranks of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the Sangh Parivar and became the Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat. Just a few months after Mr. Modi became the Chief Minister, several Hindu devotees traveling by a train were killed by Muslim arsonists. Days later, riots by Hindu extremists, targeting Muslims in retaliation, erupted all over the State of Gujarat, while the state government did little to quell the violence.
The Nero has another face -- to some Mr. Modi represents the face of economic prosperity. To his credit, sweeping economic reforms, indeed, have contributed to the economic development of Gujarat. Despite his tainted past, the lure of corporate jobs, the promise of economic reform through the high-on-rhetoric but low-on-detail speeches, and the culture of hero worshiping prevalent in India, have earned him the support of India's middle classes, who have idolized him into a demigod. The standard rebuttal, to the slightest hint of uncomfortableness with Modi's demigod status, from the ardent devotees of NaMo, is the 1984 riots sponsored by the then-ruling Congress (as though two wrongs make a right) or the so called "clean chit" given to Mr. Modi by the Indian Judiciary (which has a pitiably low record of convicting politicians). Are India's educated elite, that form the core of Modi's support base, really so naive to believe that Narendra Modi's behavior was not even supine, let alone complicit, despite, an Indian Supreme Court judge calling him a Nero, conviction of his cabinet colleagues for their role in the riots, his top police officers being involved in fake encounters and the U.S. taking the unprecedented step of denying entry to an Indian Chief Minister? (Shamefully, the U.S., not wanting to sever tries with a rising economy like India is now seeking to make peace with Modi, the very man it had earlier accused of a genocide in an attempt to project itself as a champion of religious freedom.) Perhaps a decade of communal (Muslim vote bank appeasing) policies and mis-governance by the incumbent Congress has rendered the middle classes callous to even the ghastliness of a pogrom.
India's libertarians fear that Modi's allegiance to fascist organizations means a blow to personal liberty and dissent. After all, ever since the political climate became favorable to the BJP, it has become impossible to not notice the extreme intolerance of the pro-Modi fundamentalists -- from browbeating Penguin publishers into taking Wendy Doniger's controversial book off circulation to encouraging sedition charges against a few Kashmiri students for cheering for a Pakistani cricket team. For India's sexual minorities, BJP's rise to power is a nightmare come true. After India's top court re-criminalized homosexuality as a crime (a technicality that overturned a lower court judgement decriminalizing the colonial law), the BJP, despite enjoying the support of the middle classes which disapprove the judgement, shockingly supports the court's ruling. Is the BJP seeking to trade personal freedom for a lukewarm economic reform?
It is unfortunate that the land of Gandhi and Buddha will be headed by a man of such hate. We can only hope Mr. Modi will realize that his success as the Prime Minister of India depends on his ability to represent all of the country's people.