Meet India’s most admired and most feared politician: Narendra Modi. The world’s largest democracy, India, could elect him Prime Minister. And the world’s leading democracy, the United States, currently does not issue him a visa.
I spent ninety minutes with Mr. Modi earlier this month at his Chief Minister’s residence in Gujarat – a state of 60 million people, about the same size as France, Britain, or Italy, and practically twice as big as California.
More than any other state leader in India, Modi is shaking up national politics. In a January survey by India Today, he again ranked as India’s top performing Chief Minister. For the first time, he also was the top pick for national Prime Minister. The percentage who favored him had doubled over last year, vaulting him past Rahul Gandhi.
I had heard about Modi — from all sides—all across India. “India’s most effective public official.” “If given five years, he would transform India’s economy.” “He cannot be forgiven for the riots.” “Gujarat borders on a cult of personality.”
In person, Modi comes across as an effective administrator, a proud Indian nationalist, and a committed if not zealous Hindu. He also is a policy maven—introverted, precise, and even passionate about the most technical of subjects. On almost all of these issues, his Gujarat is pushing, not following, New Delhi and India.
Modi welcomed me, and handed me eight pages of single-spaced answers to questions that I had submitted in advance. “This way we can just have a conversation.”
With no prompting, Modi raised Gujarat’s 2002 riots, which are his “brand” in India— the single event for which he is known by nearly all Indians.
“I had never run anything before, and I had never run for elected office” he said. “And then the Godhra train incident happened.”
On February 27, 2002, fifty-eight Hindus were killed on a train in the Gujarat town of Godhra, returning from a pilgrimage. The next day, Modi called for a day of mourning— which some mourners took as an invitation to riot. Gujarat exploded, with the death-toll reaching a thousand people, mostly Muslims. India has known murderous riots, but had never before seen them live on cable TV in horrific, unspeakable detail.
Many Indians saw Modi either as complicit, or at least indifferent to Muslim suffering. Accusations persist that he directed the police to allow attacks on Muslims; that he sought to cover up the worst of the crimes; or that he failed to prosecute Hindu nationalists.
No formal charges have been made against Modi, though a special investigation has produced a lengthy confidential report. India’s Supreme Court recently turned the whole matter back to local courts of Gujarat. It is for this reason that despite his popularity, many observers doubt that his BJP party will put him forward as their Prime Minister candidate.
The U.S. government has found enough reason for concern that in 2005, the State Department revoked Mr. Modi’s visa. They cited a provision that bars any government official who "directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom."
Modi has never apologized. “I was just installed in my position the day before.” He had been formally elected and sworn in on February 26th, having been acting Chief Minister for six months, mostly overseeing response to Gujarat’s 2001 earthquake.
Later he told me in general terms about his years in office, “I have made mistakes, and my government has made mistakes. What is important is that we recognize them, evaluate what we have done, and then fix them.” Last September, he led a state-wide fast for “peace, unity, and harmony.” He has started to reach out to the Muslim community, expressing “pain … for the families who had suffered.” Opponents fear a slick charm offensive, making him a more presentable candidate to someday become Prime Minister. Many think Modi must show greater contrition and give explicit acknowledgement of his failings.
Modi may be branded by the riots, but what he really wanted to talk about was Gujarat’s economic miracle. Gujarat’s economic performance is without peer in India, growing an average 10% each year for a decade. That is faster growth than almost any place on earth, including most of China. Some argue that this might have happened regardless of Modi, but what is clear is that on most key policy matters, he has defied the logic and design of Delhi policy-making. “I want to develop Gujarat to develop India.”
After the earthquake and the riots, Modi launched a “Vibrant Gujarat” conference in 2003 to market the state to Indian and foreign investors. He established simple rules: “We will not pay any incentives and will not accept any bribes. But I will provide single window facilitation, quality power and water, and will honor my commitments.” One Gujarati businessman told me that he had been suspicious back then, and had doubted that any company would ever actually invest. But they did. According to state published reports, pledged investments have grown from 76 MOUs amounting to $14 billion in 2003, to nearly 8,000 MOUs signed in 2011 for $450 billion.
Unlike Chinese-style urban manufacturing that draws workers from the country-side, Modi also targeted rural development. “If it does not work in the villages, it will not work in the city.” His eyes light up when discussing infrastructure, agricultural colleges, solar energy, and climate change. “I prioritized four things,” he said, holding up his four fingers, and then pulling each one down in turn: “Water, electric power, connectivity, and distance education.”
Against considerable protest by environmentalists— both in Gujarat and in New Delhi – Modi expanded a dam in Gujarat’s north. The arid state’s fields are now irrigated. In three years, he also did what no other state has done: provide reliable electric power. “We now have high quality power all day, every day, in every village.” Modi simply started charging people for electricity’s true costs. They were willing to pay, once they realized that it would be more reliable. “Once farmers had power, they wanted to buy electric appliances.”
He also made sure all villages were equipped with roads and high-speed phone connectivity. He has placed special emphasis on rural schools, especially on “educating the girl child” to wipe out female illiteracy.
He practices what he preaches. Each spring, in the hottest month of the year, he demands that all his officials join him to work in the fields, helping farmers plant their crops. “The week is a travelling open university… From Lab to Land.” Before Modi, Gujarat already was known around the world for its “white revolution” in expanding milk production. Modi discussed at length his further efforts on behalf of cattle health— a religiously loaded theme among practicing Hindus.
Modi also has led the way in India in discussing climate change and renewable energy. After asking for a two-day tutorial from Rajendra Pachauri, the award winning head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Modi came up with a comprehensive plan to cut fossil fuel use in Gujarat— including India’s first state-level ministry for climate change.
Working with the Clinton Climate Initiative, he is betting on renewable energy— hydro, wind, biodiesel, and especially solar energy. Again, he is pushing New Delhi. The Central government, for instance, demands that any solar panels it purchases be primarily manufactured in India. Modi’s Gujarat buys them wherever he can at the cheapest cost. Before a recent G-20 summit, Modi told me, “I suggested to the Prime Minister that we create a global alliance of solar abundant countries.”
He summed up all of this work in a glossy book called Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response to Climate Change. Sound familiar? It is directly modeled on Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, though it emphasizes what Gujarat has done, as opposed to what Gore hopes America might someday do. Critics respond that many of the actions listed in the book were not intended to address climate, and have raised their own questions about Modi’s environmental record.
When he handed me a copy, he included with it Mahatma Gandhi’s Autobiography. “For me, this is a moral issue. You don’t have a right to exploit what belongs to future generations. We are only allowed to milk the earth, not to kill it.” For Modi-as-environmentalist, it seems, all the world is a holy cow.
I asked Modi about the growing involvement— and even coordination —of the states’ Chief Ministers on issues of foreign policy. He grew cautious. “I want to develop my state to help develop the country,” he said. “Foreign policy belongs to the Center.” He was careful when discussing recent disputes over a National Counter Terrorism Center, which has been opposed by several Chief Ministers. “The Center and States both have equities. The Center simply needs to do a better job of consulting. An accommodation will be found.”
He declined to discuss the particulars of Iran’s nuclear policy or its oil trade with India, saying that was also the responsibility of the Center (though much of the oil is processed in Gujarat). But he did say that one should not be selective about state sponsors of terror. “One policy should fit all.”
I took this to mean that if India believes Iran is supporting terror, then it should deal with the consequences – which would be a breach with current policy. But just as easily, he could have been sending a message that America’s own support of Pakistan while opposing Iran is also a double standard.
He made clear that he considers Pakistan (which shares a border with Gujarat) to be a state sponsor of terror. “They provided shelter for Bin Laden, and they continue to support terror. Terrorism is against humanism. In all human societies, there can be no tolerance for terror.”
Modi’s difficult relations with Gujarat’s Muslims are well known in Pakistan. As a result, his growing popularity in India could become a potential flashpoint in the tense relationship between India and Pakistan.
Modi was also careful when discussing his own economic diplomacy, including trade missions to China, Europe, and Japan, making clear again that he felt that India should be represented in foreign policy by the Central government in New Delhi, not the states. That said, he has written Prime Minister Singh, asking whether the states can have their own representatives at key embassies overseas. He expressed great interest in the fact that American states often have their own offices, independent of U.S. embassies.
On his trade mission to China: “China is good at making things. Gujarat is also good at making things. We can compete with China or cooperate with them.” He told officials in China that he would prefer cooperation, including Chinese investment in Gujarat. But he also told them that their support of Pakistan, “a state sponsor of terror,” makes him question how committed they are to global norms. “They listened to me and were polite. I do not think it will change the way they behave.”
I came away thinking that this was a man America needed to know better. He may never be able to move past his role in the 2002 riots. But he is a talented and effective political leader, and will continue pushing New Delhi and not following. He has successfully tackled some of India’s toughest problems, but also has touched its most sensitive nerves. He is wrestling with major global challenges, with all the complexities that implies for a man with strong nationalist convictions. One thing is certain— he will continue to be a force in Indian politics.
William Antholis is managing director of the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow in Governance Studies. The views in this piece are his own, and do not reflect the views of the Brookings Institution.
 Modi was picked by 24% of those surveyed, far ahead of the Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi, who received 17%. That was a switch in the outcome a year earlier, where Gandhi received 21% to Modi’s 12%. India Today, “Who Should be the Next PM?,” Cover Story, January 28, 2012.
 See for instance Kinjal Desai, “’Convenient Action’ Conveniently Ignores?” Daily News and Analysis, June 23, 2011.