Editorial: India's democracy faces a difficult choice

Why should anyone prefer the untested Rahul Gandhi to the experienced Narendra Modi, when all the former can offer is more of the same? The answer is in the question
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With the selection of Narendra Modi as campaign chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party yesterday, the contours of next year’s contest to lead the 21st century superpower that is India are becoming clear. It is all but certain that the tough and business-minded Chief Minister of Gujarat will lead India’s main opposition party into the 2014 general election just as, with a fair degree of certainty, we also know who will run for the ruling Congress Party: the latest scion of the never-ending Gandhi dynasty, Rahul.

Cometh the man, cometh the hour, many say, looking at India’s worryingly long list of economic and social ailments and comparing them to Mr Modi’s tick list of achievements.

The western state of Gujarat has struck gold under the Chief Minister’s watch with  double-digit growth, rising incomes and scores of new businesses, all lured by Mr Modi’s intolerance of corruption and his network of newly built roads and canals. And he has not built without heed to the environment; Mr Modi has covered Gujarat in solar panels.

To many Indians, the man who promises “less government, more governance” deserves a chance to transfer that recipe from one state to  New Delhi. There he talks of shaking up education, selling off state firms, slashing red tape, focusing on key industries like defence and solving at least part of India’s chronic energy problems through solar power. No wonder some see him as Mrs Thatcher incarnate, a bourgeois revolutionary on a mission to realise India’s middle-class destiny.

In competition against the untested Rahul Gandhi, outsiders might be forgiven for thinking that there is no contest. Apart from being blessed with Bollywood looks, Mr Gandhi’s only real qualification to lead India is the fact that he is the son of one prime minister, Rajiv, the grandson of another, Indira, and the great-grandson of India’s independence leader, Jawaharlal Nehru.

His workload, as MP for a safe seat, as leader of Congress’s youth wing and now as the party’s vice-president, has not been onerous and his aptitude for talking in unobjectionable clichés about the multitudinous problems that India faces does nothing to suggest that underneath the bland exterior lie hidden qualities of resourcefulness and originality. Why, then, should anyone prefer Mr Gandhi against Mr Modi, when all that the former can offer is more of the same consensual, secular politics that the Congress Party has made its trademark? That is, in fact, the answer, which may well explain why Mr Gandhi, not Mr Modi, assumes the reins in 2014. 

The Chief Minister of Gujarat, besides a reputation as a champion of business, also has a less desirable reputation as a Hindu chauvinist – a worrying trait in a country as diverse as India. The great blot on his CV is that, as Chief Minister in 2002, he turned a blind eye to a series of anti-Muslim pogroms that claimed over 1,000 lives. A quarter of the victims were Hindus but most were Muslims and, according to Human Rights Watch, state officials and police in Gujarat aided and at times even directed the mobs. No one has suggested Mr Modi started the violence, but he did little to stop it and, significantly, he has neither apologised for what happened under his watch nor even expressed regret.

If the temptation of high office prompts Mr Modi to reflect more ruefully on the horrors of 2002, he may deserve to win next year. If not,  Indians may feel they have to stick with the dynasty and back Mr Gandhi. It is an unenviable choice. But it is up to Mr Modi to make it clearer that he deserves the top job.