India’s 815 million voters started the five-week voting cycle earlier this week. It’s already being celebrated as a triumph just for taking place — “the largest collective democratic act in history,” according to the Economist.
The winner will matter. India now punches far below its demographic weight — its 1.24 billion people are served by just 600 diplomats, about the same number as the Netherlands. The United States, with 314 million people, has 15,000. But that apparent lack of interest in making a mark on the world seems about to end.
What had seemed a likely victory for the first minister of the northwestern state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, has now hardened into a near certainty — at least for much of the Indian media. Modi, self-made, ambitious and energetic at 63, has the ability to project India’s latent power. He wants growth, which India greatly needs to raise more of its citizens out of poverty and to provide jobs for its expanding population.
That could be a cause for fear — first within, and then outside of, India. For Modi is marked by a dark shadow that he cannot — and perhaps has no wish to — shake. His political affiliation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and his membership in the right-wing , paramilitary Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) signals he may have less loyalty to the multi-ethnic country that is India and more to the dominant ethnicity: the Hindus.
The charge against Modi that casts the longest shadow involves days of mob violence in Gujarat in 2002. A train caught fire in a town called Godha, causing 59 deaths — and rumors quickly pointed to Muslim extremists. In revenge, Hindu extremists slaughtered between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims. There is no final clarity to this incident. A local commission has, 12 years later, yet to publish a final report on the train fire. Another commission, set up by the central government, concluded the fire was accidental.