Nearly 60 years ago, a forced laborer in a Hungarian brick factory hatched a far-fetched plan to escape.
A controversial candidate has emerged as a potential prime minister in the 2014 general elections in the world’s largest democracy.
Narendra Modi is the chief minister for the state of Gujarat and his opposition party BJP, which is a Hindu nationalist party, did well in four states during the recent local elections.
But while he has been praised for the economy in his home state, he’s also been criticized for not doing enough to stop anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people dead.
The BBC’s Sanjoy Majumder joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the controversy surrounding Modi.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And from American politics to Indian politics now. The world's largest democracy is holding general elections next year, and one of the candidates getting a lot of attention is a guy named Narendra Modi, who could be the country's next prime minister. Joining us to talk about him is BBC's Sanjoy Majumder. He's with us from Delhi. Sanjoy, welcome.
SANJOY MAJUMDER: Hello.
HOBSON: Well, first of all, just give us a little bit of an introduction to Mr. Modi. Who is he?
MAJUMDER: Well, Narendra Modi, at the moment, is the leader of the state of Gujarat. He's the highest elected official, the chief minister. And he belongs to India's principal opposition party, the BJP, which, in many ways, is a conservative force in Indian politics. It, in some ways, resembles - at least in economic policy - the Republican Party, if you like, of the United States.
And Narendra Modi is now the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP. He's one of India's most controversial politicians, because while he has an incredible reputation as being a very efficient administrator, a leader who is not known to be corrupt, he also has a legacy, which is that in 2002, under his watch as Gujarat chief minister, the state witnessed one of the worst religious riots in Indian history.
Something like 2,000 people - most of them Muslims, from the minority - were killed. And he's often been accused of not just doing very little, but actually actively fomenting those riots. And that's the reason why, even today, he is seen very much as a divisive politician, someone who, while he has the backing of many people, equally is loathed by many others.
HOBSON: Loathed by perhaps the 12 percent of Indians who are Muslim.
MAJUMDER: Not just that. I think there is certainly a segment of liberal Indians who are very nervous about the rise of Narendra Modi, people who do believe that India, by and large, is a secular country where the rights of minorities are enshrined. And therefore, they're very nervous of the fact that maybe the country could possibly be run by someone who may not share those values, or at least has never been known to express those values openly.
HOBSON: Now, you say he's from the state of Gujarat, which is in the northwest of India. It is home to Mahatma Gandhi, and it has been doing very well economically while he's been in charge, right?
MAJUMDER: Yes, that's right. Gujarat is one of India's best-performing states. It attracts more foreign investment than almost any other Indian state. Unlike many other parts of the country, it has fantastic infrastructure: roads, ports. And also he runs a very efficient administration. He's loved by the business community, because it's very easy to do business in Gujarat. That's something a lot of people find very frustrating in India, the number of bureaucratic bottlenecks.
There are allegations that businesses often have to bribe lower officials to get their way. That's something that doesn't often happen in Gujarat, and that's the reason why many people are hoping - at least from the business community - that Mr. Modi can do to India what he's done to Gujarat, that is make it a very, very prosperous state.
HOBSON: So that is, do you think, going to be the main issue in the 2014 elections, the economy and lifting of more Indians out of poverty across the country?
MAJUMDER: That's certainly going to be the centerpiece of Mr. Modi's campaign. It's been very clear already - from the kind of public meetings he's been having and the themes he's been hitting, quite apart from attacking the governing Congress Party - he and his campaign managers have been very quick to stress on his record in office, talking about Gujarat's economic prosperity.
And the economy is something that everyone is sensitive about across the world, but particularly so at the moment in India. We've had several years of very high inflation, cost of living's gone up substantially. The cost of food - the single biggest budgetary item, if you like, for most Indians - has shot up, in some cases, by over 100 percent in the last five years.
So it's become very expensive for the average Indian, and therefore, it's somebody like Narendra Modi with a message that he is about to put the economy back on the rails is something that's very, very appealing.
HOBSON: What would Mr. Modi mean for relations with the United States, which, as you know, have become even more important for this country, given the rise of China and the U.S. wanting to have a real friend and ally in that part of the world?
MAJUMDER: Well, interestingly enough, Mr. Modi is a bit of a problem for the United States, particularly the State Department. He, for instance, has never been able to get a visa to visit the United States, despite the fact that, you know, there are a lot of Indians there. There are a lot of people from his Gujarat state living in many parts of the States, particularly in areas such as New Jersey.
But the reason he doesn't get a visa is, of course, because of the question over those riots in 2002. Now a lot of other countries, particularly in Europe, have since revised their policy, and have actually extended invitations to him to visit their country. Diplomats have been visiting him. The only ones who have been conspicuous by their absence are the Americans. And I think, just a short while ago, a couple of weeks ago, Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, actually spoke about this and said that it was perhaps time for Washington to take a fresh look at Mr. Modi.
And I think that's a recognition that perhaps this is someone they're going to have to deal with eventually, and therefore they need to sort of rethink their policy.
HOBSON: Sanjoy, what does this mean for the Congress Party and the way that India is changing? Is the Congress Party out of fashion, do you think?
MAJUMDER: I think what the Congress Party is suffering from at the moment is voter fatigue. They've been in power for two back-to-back terms, and it's always very difficult for an incumbent government to win a third term. I mean, things have to really go in your favor. They've been struck, I think, in the last few years by several things going against them.
There have been a number of corruption scandals, most of which have been laid at their door. They're suffering from a leadership crisis, as well, because the incumbent prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is not going to run for another term. It looks very much like the party is going to pass on to Rahul Gandhi, who of course comes from the very influential political first family of India, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. In many ways, they're the Kennedys of India.
But he's seen very much as a reluctant leader. He doesn't really have that popular following. He isn't known to take a public stand, and they haven't declared him as a candidate, either. So you have, on the one hand, Narendra Modi, who is a declared candidate, who is looking very strong. On the other hand, you don't quite know who he's fighting against.
HOBSON: The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder, joining us from Delhi. Thank you so much.
MAJUMDER: Thank you.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And a quick note on another story: India, of course, was once a British colony. Britain is not the dynasty it once was, but later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, a fascinating look at how Brits still listen to shipping forecasts. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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