The Emperor Uncrowned

Modi_CaravanOn the 10th year anniversary of the communal riots in Gujarat, Vinod Jose profiles Narendra Modi in Caravan:

MODI HAD NOT GOTTEN OFF to a good start with India’s leading business figures. Nine years ago, in February 2003, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)—the country’s biggest and most important business trade association—held a special session at its auditorium in New Delhi: “Meeting with Narendra Modi, the New Chief Minister of Gujarat”. The meeting was organised after a special request from Modi: he had just won a resounding victory in state elections in the wake of the riots, but he was still facing public condemnation from national business leaders and dealing with an economy reeling from the impact of the violence.

The mobs who ran wild in the streets of Gujarat did not confine their rage to local Muslims: more than 1,000 trucks were set afire, and the torching of a shipment of Opel Astra cars from a General Motors factory made international headlines. One estimate suggested that industry in Gujarat had lost 20 billion ($409 million) in the riots. The spectre of communal violence made international investors jittery—new foreign direct investment inflows had all but dried up by September 2002—while Indian industrialists openly feared further chaos in what was, even before Modi’s arrival, one of the most critical states for their business operations.

In the months after the riots, some of corporate India’s biggest names had publicly voiced their anger and concern. Deepak Parekh, the CEO of HDFC Bank, said that India had lost its face as a secular country, and that he was ashamed of what had happened in Gujarat. Cyrus Guzdar, the CMD of the shipping company AFL, compared the violence against Muslims in Gujarat to “a genocide”. Two of Bangalore’s biggest IT chieftains, Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Azim Premji of Wipro, issued strong public condemnations. At a CII national meeting in April 2002, the chairwoman of the energy major Thermax, Anu Aga, received a standing ovation after delivering an impassioned speech about the suffering of Muslims in Gujarat.

Modi knew he was under pressure. But he also knew that he had won an overwhelming electoral mandate from the voters of Gujarat—and that Gujarat, riots or no riots, was of critical importance to the chieftains of Indian business. He came to Delhi to mend his image with the captains of industry, but he would do so, as always, on his own terms.