Posted by: John Elliott | April 22, 2014

Focus on Modi’s questionable prime ministerial ability, not Godhra 2002

Surely it is time to put aside the debate about Narendra Modi and his accountability for the 2002 Godhra riots and focus on the more immediate issue of whether he is capable of being a competent prime minister. Could he rebuild an effective government machine and deliver economic growth, or is he too autocratic and abrasive to be the politically competent prime minister that India needs? That is the real issue that matters now, but 2002 hogs the headlines and the minds of campaigners.

I’m in the UK for a few days where there’s an angry debate between members of the Indian intelligentsia, focussed in The Guardian, over Modi and 2002. On one side is Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at Cambridge who condemns Modi for links with the RSS as well as Godhra. On the other side is Lord (Meghnad) Desai more rationally arguing that Modi is not the first political leader to have presided at a time of riots, but that others have not been hounded for years.

Modi - Econ cover April 5 '14The Economist magazine was also blinded by 2002 when it ran one of its more irrational editorials two weeks ago. Because of Godhra, it opted for Rahul Gandhi, the unsuitable dynastic heir to Congress Party leadership, as the “less disturbing option” for prime minister without examining Modi’s prime ministerial abilities. My old newspaper, The Financial Times, tied itself up in knots on the subject a day or two later, but at least did not come to such a weak conclusion. Both allowed post-Godhra emotions to colour their usually more savvy balanced judgements.

The real issue now is whether Modi could run a government in three key ways – picking top people to run the Prime Minister’s Office with him, picking and working with senior ministers and bureaucrats to run major departments, and working with chief ministers in the states so that policies can be implemented.

India suffers today not from a lack of new laws, policies or ideas, but from appalling implementation of government decisions. That is caused by cumbersome outdated laws and regulations, bloated bureaucracies, political infighting, and endemic corruption. It is unlikely that Modi will do much to curb crony capitalism, but what he does need to be able to do is to make the PMO, the major government departments, and the states work in unison.

His autocratic record in Gujarat does not indicate he has the ability to do this. Nor, to be fair, does it show that he cannot because he has not needed to do so as chief minister. No-one therefore knows how he perform as prime minister and that is the issue that should be debated now, not whether or not he was guilty at Godhra.

The problem is that most people – including the liberal media – have been in denial for the past decade or so about his potential rise. They have never believed he would get so far and are now reacting with shock and horror when it is almost certainly too late to dislodge him over 2002. Even last year many were dismissing the idea of him becoming the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate as being beyond belief.

I saw Modi in 2002 and 2008 as a future national leader

I first wrote 12 years ago in July 2002 that Modi was a potential national leader. I suggested in a column for India’s Business Standard that, unlike most politicians, he was arguing as Gujarat chief minister passionately for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction. He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground and presenting his case with rare confidence and élan – and, whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence (some called it ego). This was not an endorsement but, to a bystander, he looked like a logical heir for L.K.Advani.

“Friends and contacts told me that I was wrong and asked how a man who had presided in the state as chief minister during such ghastly bloody carnage could ever win popular respect and a wide following,” I wrote. “Weren’t Gujarat’s people tiring of the violence, and wasn’t he in fact already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job? The BJP, I was told, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners”.

I returned to the subject on this blog in 2008 when, after the horror of the Mumbai terrorist attacks on the Taj and Oberoi hotels and other targets, people questioned how India could recover from appalling governance and inefficient security services. I wrote that I had heard two extreme ideas. One was to have a state of emergency or even military rule, which was surely unthinkable. The other was that the country needed tough rule by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by its highly controversial Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. “I wonder how long it will be before the failings of more acceptable politicians leads to Modi becoming prime minister?”, I asked.

Mumbai vote for NModiA couple of days later, an opinion poll published by Mumbai’s DNA daily newspaper (left) showed a majority of respondents in the city favoured Modi as most likely “to provide the kind of leadership required to bring about real change” following the terror attacks. Modi led with a dramatic 47% while Advani, Singh, and Gandhi got 10-13% each.  That was significant because, since then Mumbai’s business community has promoted Modi as the leader needed to restore leadership and effective government.

These points are worth reiterating because the time to stop Modi’s rise was up to about two years ago, but all that most people did was to refuse to believe he could succeed. Congress leaders similarly thought that they had a good chance of winning this year’s general election – first because the BJP was leaderless, and then because they would be able to frighten voters into rejecting such an abrasive, controversial, dictatorial and potentially socially dangerous politician such as Modi once he became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate last September.

All those adjectives are correct. He is abrasive, controversial and dictatorial. With him as prime minister, the more extremist wings of the BJP-RSS movement known as the Sangh Parivar would potentially become socially dangerous. Activists would feel free to stir up communal unrest, as Pravin Togadia, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an arch-Hindu nationalist organisation within Sangh, has just been accused of doing with an alleged hate speech against Muslims.

But I would argue that there is little point now in returning constantly to the Godhra and other extremist issues, though rabble rousers like Togadia do of course need to be restrained. Some people might be frightened at the last minute into voting against the BJP, but opinion polls have been indicating a continuing slide by the Congress Party and support for the BJP in most parts of the country.

This shows that Modi’s record at Godhra in 2002 is not stopping people swinging to him and the BJP, hoping they would be electing a strong effective prime minister. The question that needs to be examined in the final weeks of polling that ends on May 12 is surely whether he has the character and capacity to fulfil that role.

This article appears on Asia Sentinel, a Hong Kong based news website –

My new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is now available internationally in hard cover and as an e-book – from the US , from the UK , in India , and Pakistan


  1. Now as Mr.Modi is a PM.Why do we all not wait and watch what are his abilities and capability.Whatever was past was a need of a man who comes from poor family to constantly get approvals from high commands for his survival.I see potential in this man to a Nobel pries winner for piece.There may a question how could he afford or manage such an expensive election if he does not get money from at least a few who are capable of.You need money for such a big poll at least 5 billion dollars.2.5 B for 542 LS seats,2 B for paying to media and managing election relies and 0.5 B for a candidate .Even Gandhiji’s freedom fight was financed by Motilal Nehru,Sayaji Rao Gaiekwad and Jamanadas Bajaj.So very clear without tonnes money you can not contest election as a party.That was what Indira Gandhi admitted once that it is institutionalized corruption which helps political parties to run their business.We can discuss that later.
    Even Godhara issue. it was not Mr.Modi who set fire in a coach boarded by KARSEVAKs to create an opportunity to polarize his awaited election.This opportunity came to him and he encased it.Anybody who is not from party cadre and sent to state will do the same if he can.This was something his sharp mind quickly rated in his favor.Like OSHO (Rajneesh) who told that he will speak whatever he wants irrespective of the questions you ask but he will relate it.Similarly Mr.Modi will convert any opportunity coming to him in his favor especially during election period.Whether it is Mrs.Sonia Gandhi’s comment of calling him’Mauta ka Saudagar’ in 2007 state poll or Mr.Manisankar’s comment about ‘Chaiwala’ in 2014 General election.THis is his ability to manage funds,party ,mentor organisation RSS and finally people of India.I do not see anything wrong for a person who dies not gave political background .Mr.Modi worked hard throughout his career knowing that without money and some organisation or a person to approve his nomination he could not have won Sarpanch’s election in Vadnagar.SO ALL WAHT HE HAS DONE SO DAR WAS REQUIRED FOR HIM TO REACH THE DESTINATION. To day he reached that destinations PMO.Now to me he will do anything and everything for history to call him ‘Bharat putra’ not ‘Bnharat ratna’His goal would have been to work to win next election until he gets clear majority if this time bjp was short from 272.But nice he will again take thus opportunity to deliver not only fir the party or voters but for the ‘Great India’.If you want seeing him taking hard steps give him little convenience in RS so he can move forward with different policies.As Gandhi wrote his all the dicisions may not be right all the time but his intention will not be wrong.Similarly Mr.Modi has plan clear in his mind.
    I would like to add that I am not his Karyakar,RSS MEMBER ,advocating Mr.Modi’s side for being Gujarati ,mesmarised by his victory or taking anything emotionally.I am not leaving in India as well. I am a professional Engineer in North America.

    Please contact me for any unbiased discussion on India, I would accept all positive discussion may be culture,cricket,politics,International business,international relations and of course engineering which gas been my profession science 1987.

  2. What’s wrong with “the Economist”?Why are you after Modi?
    This is irresponsible and unnecessary article again.Why did you get that thought in the first place that Modi wouldn’t be able to run the Govt.he has the experience of being the Chief Minister and he took decisions with Cabinet’s consent and has been running the State quite successfully.
    The questionable thing is your ability to be a Journalist.You want something to malign Modi.
    There is no secret connection between Modi and RSS.Everybody,in India,knows that BJP and RSS are the same.That is not a secret.
    Once refer wikipedia if you want to know about Modi.
    The problem with you people is,you sit in a country that has absolutely nothing to do with India,you read articles about Modi on “biased India media”websites.The endeavour of the Indian media to malign Modi has not started today.It was started 12 years ago.
    The questionable PM’s ability is with the present PM Manmohan Singh.According Sanjay Baru’s book,Singh was a mere rubber stamp.You should once read that book.Writing these kind of articles is a cheap publicity stunt.The country is surfing on the Modi wave.with these kind of Biased articles,the wave will turn into a Tsunami.
    Be responsible when you are writing something

  3. the comment above under the name Nick Phillips has come from a false email address so I will not be running future comments from this sender unless he uses a genuine address je

  4. Not sure whether he is capable or not. But CORRUPT Congress should go.

  5. Most of you have forgotten the cause of the riot in Gujarat.

    A train coach was set on fire by a favoured group. 70 Hindus were burnt alive. As areaction, killings stared of favoured community.

    Should you not consider two related events prior to passing your judgement.

  6. With the resources that India has. Talent, Natural resources etc. all we need is a PM who is not corrupt. Hire good, clean, top talent ( which is plenty ) into key positions and 5 years will take India’s GDP to 5+ trillion. Mark my words.

  7. Balanced article. The author has some vision into the future.

  8. RSS is not anti-social. It’s existence is based on the threat Indian Nationals face from external or anti-social forces. They never spread hatred unlike the madrasas and Christian churches. RSS focuses on the protection of Hindu Society. It is only in defense of the incarceration by the rest of the world who were trying to undermine the Hindu Society.

  9. If the tyrrant who killed millions in Germany-Hitler- and the tyrant who killed many thousands in Serbia can be brought to justice why not Modi?Why should we give up his crimes which neither acknowledges nor apologizes for?If the same had been done to Hindus this author would have reacted in a different way.
    Modi’s rise is not due to his achievements but due to successful propaganda and foolishness of Congress.Modi’s development plank has been found to be full of lies and how one can expect a man who has lied himself to the top to become a PM?That will only lead more lies and disaster to the country.
    Neither he has developed his state as he says nor he is compassionate enough to give succor to the victims of riots nor prevent them from happening.What kind of leader the author is talking about.But for the successful pogrom by Modi against Muslims he would not have become the blue eyed boy of RSS.
    The author an obvious RSS man need to explain Modi’s failings and why he supports him?
    India has many capable people like Nitish Kumar and they can become the PM of this country but not certainly Modi who is only a rabble rouser and nothing more

  10. thought provoking.

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