Polarizing Indian politician seeks another win
For thousands of voters in this dusty little town, nothing is impossible for Narendra Modi, the man they believe has worked magic to reinvent the economic landscape of his part of India. But still they gasp when the curtains open and Modi - suddenly, magically - appears in front of them.
Except he doesn't.
Modi was actually in a studio far away and had pulled off a technological sleight of hand, using hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment to project a shockingly lifelike, three-dimensional holographic image of himself onto screens at election rallies in 26 towns and villages.
Eleven years after Modi became the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he is campaigning for his third term. And as ever, he remains disdainfully dismissive of accusations that 10 years ago he and his Hindu fundamentalist party colleagues had looked the other way and even encouraged marauding mobs of Hindus as they killed and burned their way through Muslim neighborhoods in Gujarat, leaving more than 1,100 people dead.
The accusations by survivors and rights activists - he was never charged with any crime - have redefined his image as one of the most polarizing politicians of modern India. To some, his hands are covered in blood. To others he is a dynamic leader and the savior of Hindu religion from Islamic fundamentalism.
Nearly everyone expects him to be swept into office, and the top leadership of his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party is already hailing him as a future prime minister. Like the technology he uses in his speeches, they say, Modi is a man of the modern world.
Even many who shunned him in the aftermath of the riots are building bridges as the longtime Hindu ideologue markets Gujarat as a haven for investment and industry.
The riots began Feb. 27, 2002, when a train filled with Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob in a small Gujarat town. A fire erupted - it remains unclear whether it was arson - and 60 Hindus burned to death. In retaliation, Muslims were attacked across the state. Since that bloodletting, Modi has ruled over a state sharply divided along religious lines.
Years after the violence, Muslim survivors still live in what look like refugee camps.
One resettlement colony is located behind massive mountains of the city's garbage. The streets are pockmarked with giant potholes, flies swarm and goats gnaw on bits of garbage.
Modi "will always remind us of the madness that took over this city. We will always be reminded of the people who died in front of our eyes," said Sheikh Meiuddin Imamuddin, a 42-year-old autorickshaw driver.
No evidence directly links Modi to the violence and he insists he has no responsibility for the killings.
But the city police were directly under Modi's control when Hindu mobs, wielding iron rods and cans of gasoline, roamed the blockaded streets of Gujarat towns and cities, attacking Muslims in their homes, shops and vehicles. The bloodiest rioting lasted for a week, with sporadic attacks continuing far longer. Police often stood by idly as gangs pillaged Muslim homes.
In elections held soon after the riots, Modi played up his image as a defender of the state's Hindus, with campaign posters filled with images of flaming trains.
This time, though, he is determined that the elections, to be held Dec. 13 and 17, not be fought under the shadow of 2002.
Modi has worked relentlessly to market the idea of Gujarat as a business-friendly state. He has become a hero to a generation of businessmen.
So his campaign showcases the way Modi says he has transformed his state, bringing industries, jobs, electricity and water in a country where power outages and joblessness are epidemic.
Modi's purposeful, bearded face is everywhere - on huge billboards towering over rush hour traffic, on coffee mugs, key rings and orange scarves - the color associated with Hinduism - wrapped around the necks of his supporters. A television station is exclusively devoted to adoring him.
For some years after the riots, Modi was often a political pariah out of his home state. The United States refused to issue him a diplomatic visa in 2005. Britain cut ties after three of its citizens were killed in the riots (though with its economy in decline it has recently reached out to him).
Modi, though, simply turns those snubs to his political advantage, portraying himself as the face of a state in search of respect.
"There's no power in the world that has not tried to defame or destroy Gujarat in the last 11 years," he thundered at the rally in Dholka, a town on the southern edge of Ahmadabad, Gujarat's main city.
"But 60 million Gujaratis stood united alongside me and now the world is singing Gujarat's praises," he said, as the crowd cheered.
An equally important part of Modi's stump speech is poking fun at the endless stream of corruption scandals that the Congress party-led national government has faced over the past two years.
"Gujarat's coffers are full and the corrupt are itching to get their hands on it," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "The people of Gujarat will not make the mistake of allowing Gujarat to be looted like Delhi."
The crowd roared: "No, we won't."
His followers are already looking toward 2014, when the country votes in a new Parliament, and they feel he could become prime minister.
"Narendrabhai is a true leader," said a beaming Ila Pandya, a 55-year-old homemaker adding an affectionate suffix to his name that means "brother." "He knows how to get work done."
That includes pushing through infrastructure projects that would get stalled elsewhere in India by political and bureaucratic infighting. The state's highways are in excellent shape, shocking drivers from elsewhere in India.
In Gujarat, it's impossible to forget who is in charge.
Modi runs every major state ministry except finance. No local party leaders appear alongside him on election posters. Rivals are pushed aside, and allies are promoted.
"The party in Gujarat is today comprised of men and women once unknown and now in power because of Modi's favor. His hold is absolute," said Aakar Patel, a newspaper columnist who is from Gujarat.
In his speeches, Modi makes clear that only one candidate matters.
"When you vote, you think of me," he said.
"In many ways the election is really a referendum for Modi," said Shiv Vishvanathan, a social scientist at northern India's O.P. Jindal Global University, who has studied Modi for years.
Modi began his political career with the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Dal or the National Volunteers Association, a militant Hindu movement and parent organization of the BJP. The RSS, which was influenced by 1930s German fascism, has been widely accused of stoking religious hatred with its aggressively anti-Muslim views. As one of the BJP's most visible leaders, this is Modi's best chance to make the leap to national politics.
But to do that successfully, he must convince India's Muslims - 13 percent of the country's 1.2 billion people - that he is no longer defined by the violence that swept his state in 2002, India's bloodiest communal violence in the past 20 years. To become a national force would require alliances with parties that have substantial Muslim support.
And to India's Muslims, the memories of the 2002 riots have not faded.
In Gujarat, Muslims say they have heard all the talk about how the state has changed, about development and investment and jobs. But in the resettlement camps, such talk means nothing.
"I was born here and lived here my whole life, but I still don't count. Maybe he works for everyone, but I'm definitely not one of the people he works for," said 50-year-old Shameem Bano.