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Though India's nationwide elections are not scheduled until 2014, the campaign is already underway as the Conservative opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gets set to name Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its candidate for prime minister. As recently as this past summer, one of India's most astute public officials told me that would not happen because Modi's controversial nature would prevent him from forming a ruling coalition. While the left attempts to keep that controversy alive, however, calling Modi the "Butcher of Gujarat," a growing number of average Indians lionize him as the country's best hope for safety and prosperity.
Modi's Reaganesque message of optimism resonates with Indians discouraged with the left-center Congress Party that has ruled India for all but 12 years of its existence as a nation. Economic "malaise" has set in, confidence in the future has dropped, and people believe that the government is unable to deal effectively with either leftist or Islamist terror that has claimed the lives of over 10,000 Indian civilians and security personnel since 2004.
Under Modi's ten-year rule, in contrast, Gujarat has become India's state with the most consistently increasing prosperity, most recently showing a 17 percent growth in per capita income that was flat elsewhere. Early in his tenure, Modi took a strong hand in scrapping entitlements and big government programs in favor of a pro-growth, pro-business agenda and helping to eliminate India's notorious corruption in his state. My own, unscientific survey of Delhi taxi drivers, hotel workers, vendors, and others of modest means found that Indians want Modi to do the same in the rest of India. Many recalled how he stunned the country by bringing the automotive giant Tata to Gujarat in 2008 when the communist leaders of West Bengal led it to look elsewhere. Though several states vied for it, Modi put together the right package of incentives, reliable labor, and a lack of government overreach to win the day and help create thousands of jobs in Gujarat. Modi told me that he would intervene personally to create the same favorable conditions for any "joint ventures involving the United States or Israel."
Modi, however, has been a demon to the left whose article of faith is that he was responsible inter-religious riots in 2002 that killed 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus (although Modi's vilifiers rarely mention the latter). At the insistence of groups like the Congress on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the U.S. State Department refused Modi entry to the US on the basis of these accusations. Even though every Indian court, including the Supreme Court, has exonerated Modi , former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently reaffirmed the administration's position.
The good news for Modi, as I advised one Modi supporter, is that the left has raised the issue of 2002 so frequently that it is old news. Voters not swayed already are unlikely to be so during the campaign. It is a striking parallel to the left's mantra that Ariel Sharon was behind the massacres in Lebanon's Sabra and Chatilla camps. It did not stop Sharon from winning his election, and it is not likely to stop Modi.
Americans are probably tired of hearing about "historical elections," but it is not hyperbole to characterize India's as one. Its economic miracle has stalled, and people have seen their purchasing power fall significantly under the Congress Party's increasing entitlements and handouts. Moreover, while Islamists are likely operating within our borders, there is no question of it in India. Narendra Modi and the people around him who will help shape foreign policy under a Modi government, have made it clear to me and others that they recognize the threat and know that it must be fought unequivocally. Even now, friend and foe alike expect that a Prime Minister Modi would not be shy about flexing India's muscles in response to the "soft and hard tests" that insiders expect from Islamists and Maoists.
Will Modi's popularity, which is at a zenith now, continue once the media and his opponents unleash their fury in the campaign? We will know soon as it has started already. Leftist students staged noisy demonstrations outside Modi's first major policy speech and its pro-growth agenda to youth in Delhi who responded with thunderous applause. Yet, eschewing the substance, many media outlets focused more on the noisy students outside.