Kalpesh, Raj, Bishant and Gautam are waiting. Around them, on what is usually a dusty sports pitch in the scruffy Indian town of Dahegam in the western state of Gujarat, are at least 10,000 other men. Arc lights illuminate a stage and many saffron-coloured pennants. Nearby, buses decant hundreds of latecomers. All have come to see Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state and India’s most divisive and controversial politician. He is late.
The four men, all in their early or mid-30s, live locally. Kalpesh sells clothes in the market. Vishant runs a travel agency and owns two coaches which carry newly wealthy locals, beneficiaries of Gujarat’s 10% year-on-year growth rates, on package tours to Goa and Kashmir. Gautam is a computer technician on contract to local schools.
A cross-section of the new India, they are all “middle-class”, they explain. Except Raj, the labourer who is “working-class … but not for long”, they laugh.
On the stage is Harin Pathak, a veteran local politician. He is warming up the audience with earthy humour. Modi, clad in white leggings, a pink shirt and a saffron-coloured shawl, makes his entrance to thunderous cheers of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”—victory to Mother India. “Here comes the lion of Gujarat,” shouts Pathak.
By nightfall on Monday, polling in Gujarat’s state election will end and Modi will find out if voters have granted him a third full term in office. Most pundits believe they will. The question is by what margin. A major win would catapult the 62-year-old, reviled by Indian liberals for his populism, autocratic tendencies and roots in far-right religious organisations, to the leadership of the currently fragmented main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).
This would raise the possibility of Modi becoming India’s prime minister after national elections, scheduled for 2014 but likely to be sooner, which will pit the BJP against a weak and unpopular minority government.
One recent boost for Modi, who has established a reputation as the most business-friendly of Indian regional rulers, came in October when the UK broke ranks with all other EU nations and the US to end a de facto boycott imposed after Modi failed to control—critics say condoned—communal rioting in Gujarat which cost the lives of at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims and including three Britons, in 2002 shortly after he took power.
Vinod Sharma, political editor of the local Hindustan Times newspaper, described Modi’s success as “a threat and an insult” to the “very idea” of India as a secular democracy.
“The biggest irony is that this is happening in the Mahatma’s own lands,” Sharma said. Gujarat was the birthplace and base of Mahatma Gandhi.
But there are other reasons why the choice of Gujarat’s 38 million voters is seen as crucial. The state is one of the most urbanised and wealthy parts of the country. What Gujarat already is, India may soon become.
Modi’s asceticism, honesty and administrative efficiency—not qualities often associated with Indian politicians—have won fans cross the country. He consistently tops popularity polls.
“A very large section of the middle class across India have great admiration for Modi,” said Prof Ajay Dandekar, a social scientist at the Central University of Gujarat.
There are five major issues in all Indian elections: personalities, economic development, communal or religious identities, the impact of national politics on regions, and caste, the millennia-old social hierarchy that still often determines wealth, influence and votes.
Modi is easily winning the personality battle. He is a local boy who once sold tea for a living. The campaign of his main opponent, the Congress party, is led by Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old Delhi-based heir of India’s most famous political dynasty. It has been easy for Modi to portray his opponent as an elite outsider.
“Would you give the keys of your house to someone you don’t know? No. So why give the keys to Gujarat to a stranger? I know you, your wants, your needs, your desires. I am of you,” Modi told the crowd at the Dahegam rally, to rapturous applause.
Though caste is a factor, with a breakaway BJP faction wooing one particular disgruntled local community, the poll’s outcome depends more on whether the economic boom that has brought relative wealth to many in Gujarat will outweigh dissatisfaction among rural communities and lower castes.
Hindu-dominated urban areas and the higher castes have done well, but indicators such as infant malnutrition and literacy have remained stubbornly unchanged despite the new wealth.
The tenacity of the three worst enemies of agricultural communities across India—debt, drought and disease—have alienated many. “We hear about Vibrant Gujarat [a Modi campaign slogan] but don’t see it,” said Neeraj Shankar, a farmer from Surendranagar district.
And there remains religion. The BJP has tried to shed its hardline Hindu identity in recent years, recognising that sectarian rhetoric rings false in modern India. But the party’s roots are among the galaxy of far-right Hindu groups that still command the loyalty of millions.
Modi himself was once a committed activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militaristic mass organisation which believes in a muscular, assertive Hinduism within India and has been repeatedly banned. Critics including victims’ relatives and human rights groups claim Modi held back police during the 2002 riots to allow mobs to kill and loot.
Close associates have been convicted for their involvement in the violence and, although Modi has recently made efforts to show a more moderate side, not one of his candidates for the 182-seat state assembly is a Muslim.
Supporters argue that suspicions of sectarian prejudice are unfounded and say the chief minister was recently in effect exonerated by a 600-page report ordered by the Indian supreme court into the 2002 riots, which followed a lethal fire on a train full of Hindu pilgrims.
Prathak, the veteran Ahmedabad BJP member of parliament, said that Muslims, 10% of the state’s population, have lived in “perfect security” in Gujarat since then. This has come, however, at the cost of rigid communal segregation in Ahmedabad and elsewhere.
Nadeem Jafri, a businessman in the Jahalpur neighbourhood, said he lived in “the biggest ghetto in Asia”.
“Even if I want to purchase a property in a prime location I won’t get one. But even if I could, I would think twice because it might be unsafe. There has been no problem since 2002 but why take a chance?” Jafri, 41, asked.
Jahalpur’s slums, where goats wander on dirt roads and children play among rubbish, are overlooked by new luxury housing developments built by Hindus exclusively for Hindus.
When the Guardian posed as a prospective buyer at one 860-flat project, the Venus Parkland, a salesman made clear that there were no Muslims among the owners of the 400 units already sold. There are 30 inquiries every day.
“We can see by the name [that they are Muslim] so we don’t follow up their application,” the salesman explained.
At the Dahegam rally, Kalpesh, Raj, Bishant and Gautam said India’s rich variety of religions was a “good thing” but were horrified at the idea of one of their own children marrying a Muslim.
“Let us be us and them be them and then we will all get along,” Raj the labourer said.
In his speech at Dahegam, Modi did not mention religion but, indignant one moment, confiding the next, listed the corruption scandals that have repeatedly hit the Congress-led national government and his own achievements building roads, toilets and pipelines as well as attracting foreign investment.
“If you like what I have done so far then I am happy. But this is nothing. I am not satisfied. I want more. The time has come,” he bellowed, a fist raised.
Commentators such as Sharma say Modi will need “a complete personality transplant, not just a makeover”, if he is ever to win power at a national level.
Kalpesh, Raj, Bishant and Gautam, standing now amid the crush of excited supporters at the rally, did not agree.
“Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” they shouted. “Victory to Mother India … victory to Gujarat … victory to Modi.”