- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2013

NEW DELHI — A Hindu nationalist leader is his party’s top candidate to become India’s next prime minister, despite being banned from entering the U.S. because of accusations his government was involved in deadly anti-Muslim riots.

Narendra Modi, who has won three successive elections as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, has a reputation as an efficient, incorruptible administrator in a county where corruption is rampant.

But he is tainted by accusations that his government was complicit in Gujarat riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The accusations could deter support by smaller regional parties, which are key to cobbling together a coalition government.

Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which led a coalition government from 1998 to 2004, has yet to name its prime minister choice for parliamentary elections next year. Because of the riot charges, the BJP is in a quandary whether it should pick its most reliable vote-getter and risk alienating allies.

“If there were an election within the BJP to choose a candidate, Mr. Modi would almost certainly win,” said Ashok Malik, a New Delhi-based political commentator.

“Today, his appeal is arguably greater than the BJP’s,” Mr. Malik said. “I think much of the BJP, with a few exceptions, is coming to acknowledge that Mr. Modi is the best card the party can play.”

Mr. Modi has not directly responded to questions about his national political ambitions, but on recent trips to New Delhi, he has wasted no time wooing key political constituencies, including women and the business community.

He also has not been shy about criticizing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government and taking potshots at Rahul Gandhi, the ruling Congress Party-led coalition’s presumptive prime ministerial candidate. Mr. Gandhi’s great-grandfather, grandmother and father all served as prime minister.

Mr. Modi’s political success could create a dilemma for the Obama administration.

The George W. Bush administration barred Mr. Modi from receiving a U.S. visa in 2005 following the riot accusations. Mr. Modi denies any involvement in the riots.

The Obama administration has kept the ban in place, but Britain and the European Union recently ended their decade-old boycotts of Mr. Modi.

“The U.S. had entertained many an individual with a dubious human rights record on its own soil,” said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Modi, obviously has his own baggage. However, the U.S., if it suits its own interests, will find some way to rationalize granting Modi a visa.”

Despite the visa ban, Mr. Modi frequently addresses supporters in the U.S. via videoconference.

The Wharton India Economic Forum at the University of Pennsylvania canceled its invitation to Mr. Modi to address its meeting last month following a protest by university faculty and students.

“He is not suited for the job of prime minister as he remains, and will remain, a deeply polarizing figure, whose politics is predicated upon the marginalization of minorities,” said Suvir Kaul, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, who took part in the protest.

Ania Loomba, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Modi should not be prime minister because “this will give him even more power to further a Hindu supremacist agenda, one that is interlaced with deeply suspect business practices as well as the systematic quelling of all dissent.”

However, Mr. Malik said Mr. Modi owes his popularity to “his strong economic performance in Gujarat; his image of personal incorruptibility; the perception that he is a decisive leader. On all three counts, the [Congress Party-led] government has had a problem.”

Mr. Kaul countered: “We have many instances the world over of large populations being enchanted with the idea of ‘strongmen’ ruling, and thus of fascists coming to power.”

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