Late last year, The Economist warned that it would not endorse Narendra Modi unless he could “show that his idea of a pure India is no longer a wholly Hindu one.”
On April 5th, days before India began voting, the paper declared that it “cannot bring itself” to endorse Modi. The editorial, which made it to the cover, drew strong reactions — over 18,000 likes on Facebook, 2,160 comments and 1,603 tweets, including this one by BJP leader Arun Jaitley.
Thankfully, ‘The Economist’ does not vote. Indians do.
— Arun Jaitley (@arunjaitley) April 4, 2014
The Economist is known to endorse candidates in both the US and UK, but according to its South Asia correspondent, Adam Roberts, this is a “relatively new thing” for India.
“To my knowledge we have only taken a position on one other parliamentary election in India: in 2009, when we decided to endorse Congress and Manmohan Singh,” he told The 545 in an email. “I believe that 2009 was a much easier decision, given the state of the economy and the state of the BJP.”
This time around, the paper faced a difficult choice. It had repeatedly censured the Congress for its graft-ridden rule. It was also deeply critical of both Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi. Modi, however, was described as “a man of action and an outspoken outsider in a political system stuffed with cronies,” under whom business in Gujarat “flourished” and the state “boomed as he cut red tape and built roads and power lines.”
Yet, as explained in the current cover story, the prospect of Modi — the “autocratic loner and poor delegator” — as PM is worrying. Although India’s is a parliamentary vote, the paper singled out Modi, Roberts said, because that’s how the BJP has run its campaign.
“Two days before voting is due to begin, the BJP has still not released a manifesto,” he said. “It does feel remarkably presidential, and certainly the BJP is making its campaign almost entirely about the man. We took the view that Modi as a candidate therefore needs special scrutiny.”
Starting with the “Hindu rampage” in 2002 in which more than 1000 Muslims were killed and many women raped, the editorial lists several instances of Modi’s fiercely divisive politics: A march he had organized at Ayodhya in 1990, his “lifelong” membership of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and hate speeches from early on in his career.
“We have been very critical of Mr. Modi over the years because of what happened in 2002,” said Roberts. “Beginning a couple of years ago, when it became likely that Mr. Modi would lead the BJP campaign, I set out to get to know him better. In July 2012, I interviewed him at length in Ahmedabad. I have met him twice (much more briefly) since.”
Much of the Indian media, in contrast, has had scarce access to the Gujarat chief minister.
It was Modi, the individual, who was largely responsible for the editorial’s position, Roberts explained. “I suspect that if a different leader were to emerge as the head of the BJP, we would be much more comfortable with seeing the party come in to office,” he added. “In particular we worry that the Indian press is not asking the hard questions any more about Modi’s role in 2002 with the riots, and his failure to address what happened.”
That is the crux of The Economist’s argument — Modi’s failure to explain, or even acknowledge what happened in Ahmedabad in 2002. His indifference to sectarian conflict, its consequences and, worse, his apparent disdain for its toll. “In a rare comment last year he said he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would that of a puppy run over by a car,” the editorial noted.
All of this, the editorial contends, contributes to an anxious uncertainty: What might Modi do in the event of riots or a crisis with Pakistan?
The Economist held two editorial meetings in London, Roberts said, to discuss its position. The correspondent phoned in from India. “We debated the pros and cons of endorsing Modi despite his failure to offer any atonement for 2002,” he said. “Strong arguments were made that Modi would be better, despite his past.”
“In the end, however, it is the editor’s call,” Roberts explained. “John Micklethwait was persuaded that Modi has not done enough to show he is a unifying leader, rather than a divisive one.”
Aparna Alluri is a freelance reporter, finishing up a graduate degree at Columbia University. For now, she is tinkering with words and sound, and she is always plotting where to travel next. Follow her @aparnalluri