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Narendra Modi: The man behind the mask who wants to be India’s Prime Minister

... but, during his time as Gujarat’s chief politician, tribal peoples have suffered

The roads in Gujarat run straight and true, and most places are blessed with a covetously unbroken supply of electricity. But when Puni’s children fell ill with typical childhood illnesses, the state failed her. Three of them died before reaching the age of three. “If there was a hospital nearby it would be very helpful,” says Puni, a tribal, or adivasi, woman in her 40s who uses only one name. She makes a subsistence living growing wheat and maize in a village 20 miles from the town of Godhra. “By the time you have to arrange a vehicle to take you, it allows the person to be lost,” she says.

With India no more than 11 months away from perhaps its most significant election for a generation, the plight of Puni and other tribal people in Gujarat threatens to test the man many believe is set to become the country’s 14th Prime Minister. Supporters of Narendra Modi, the thrice-elected Chief Minister of Gujarat, have pushed his record in the western state as one of the key reasons why he should be elevated to the national stage. In the past 12 years, they say, Mr Modi has overseen constant economic growth and created a business-friendly environment that he could recreate in the rest of India.

But increasingly, questions are being asked about the economic record of the conservative, Hindu nationalist Mr Modi. Just how remarkable has it been and has the growth been inclusive? Perhaps the most telling criticism came last month during a meeting of India’s planning commission, a state body, when Gujarat was criticised for failing to do more to help tribal people and other vulnerable communities.

The commission said the rate at which poverty was being reduced among such groups was among the slowest in the country.

“In terms of economic growth, we have noted that the performance has been good in Gujarat,” said the commission’s deputy chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia. “But, it has been our view that Gujarat needs, in order to bring its social sector performance up to the economic size, to have some special attention to this area.”

On three key social indicators used to measure the so-called human development index, Gujarat’s performance does not match its economic success. Indeed based on 2011 HDI data, it is 11th in a list of India’s 23 states.

With a population of 60 million and nestled in an enviable coastal location in the west, Gujarat has for centuries been a prosperous mercantile community. In 1604, the British East India Company opened offices here. There are large Gujarati communities in the US, UK, Canada and Australia.

Government data shows that between 2005 and 2011, the growth rate in Gujarat averaged an impressive 10.25 per cent. But the average national growth during the same period was 8.64 per cent, and some states in India did even better. “There is economic growth but it is not just because of Mr Modi. Gujarat is one of the top-ranking industrial growth states, but it acquired that status in the 1980s,” said Ghanshyam Shah, a retired professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, sitting in his apartment in Ahmedabad. “Modi accelerated the process. He combined economic policy with cultural ethos.”

But he also said the development had been not been equal. “In rural Gujarat, 16 per cent of the population is tribal and in all human development areas – health and education, etc – they are behind the national average. Narendra Modi has a big plan for tribal development but he has not implemented it.”

Mr Modi’s office did not respond to requests for an interview with him, and a government spokesman failed to respond to questions about Gujarat’s performance.

Puni narrates a life of unceasing hardship. She says she eats two meals a day, usually lentils and rice. There was a government school a mile away but both her surviving daughters are illiterate – she was a migrant worker when they were growing up and could not send them to school. She said her husband Teta, 52, had recently been ill, possibly with tuberculosis, and she took him to three different clinics which charged her substantial sums for very little treatment. Two years ago, her daughter-in-law died after giving birth to a stillborn child. They took her to a clinic but she was soon released only to complain of stomach pains. “We took her to the doctor’s and [when] they put her on the examination table she was dead,” she said.

For all her problems, Puni said that at the last election she and her husband had voted for Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – one of India’s two major political parties. “We went to a meeting and we heard about him.”

As it is, Mr Modi’s focus has not been on people such as Puni, but rather the country’s aspirational urban middle-class, a constituency increasingly frustrated by the corruption scandals that have rocked the two terms of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of the Congress Party.

He has also assiduously courted the country’s business elite, luring industry to set up shop in Gujarat and providing land and infrastructure at bargain prices. Earlier this year, Anil Ambani, one of India’s wealthiest industrialists and chairman of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, described Mr Modi as the “leader of leaders, king of kings”.

“We’re happy with the growth that has been provided by the government,” said Jaydeep Barot, a research fellow at the Gujarat Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “The vision he has for the development of industry, the input we give to policy making ... almost the policies he has, make us think he is pro-business.”

Of course, many in Gujarat and elsewhere in India still accuse Mr Modi over the 2002 massacre of up to 2,000 people – almost all of them Muslim – in a wave of violence that swept the state. Several of Mr Modi’s ministers have been convicted of orchestrating the clashes, and while he has never been charged, many believe that what he did was insufficient to stop the slaughter. Mr Modi has always denied the claims.

Though Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist stance has won him popularity in Gujarat, it is not likely to translate well in a national election, where moderate Hindus, Muslims, and urban middle classes are more concerned with employment, development and tackling corruption, and all hold significant sway. Gujarat’s economic performance is therefore seen as his key asset.

“There are 600 years of history here. Whatever is happening [economically] here today is not to do with one man,” said Father Cedric Prakash, a Catholic priest and human rights activist who has condemned Mr Modi for the 2002 violence. “That’s appropriating history,” he says.

Despite his critics, Mr Modi continues to win over supporters from the most unlikely quarters. Zafar Sareshwala, a Muslim businessman who runs a luxury car dealership in Ahmedabad, initially opposed Mr Modi and even campaigned against Mr Modi while living in the UK. Yet Mr Sareshwala said that having returned to Gujarat, he had seen differences that he attributes to the Chief Minister – investment in infrastructure and education, and putting a lid on anti-Muslim discrimination.

“Modi will evolve. He is not a foolish person,” he said. “He had the courage to move his ideas.”

Narendra Modi: The CV

Born in 1950 in the town of Vadnagar in northern Gujarat into a family of grocers, Mr Modi spent his teenage years manning a tea stall with his brother near a bus station.

Having found his political feet with the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he quickly rose through the ranks and became a key strategist for the RSS-linked Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

He was elected Gujarat’s Chief Minister in 2001, but anti-Muslim violence in the state the following year left up to 2,000 people dead and saw Mr Modi shunned by many countries, including the UK.

Despite becoming one of India’s most divisive politicians, more recently, international relations towards him have thawed as Gujurat’s economic prowess grew.