The World

Not Everyone Has Gotten the Message About the BJP’s Rebranding

Narendra Modi waves to supporters at an election rally in Mumbai on April 21, 2014.

Photo by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

Accused of complicity in (or at least insufficient concern about) the massacre of about 1,000 Muslims in his state of Gujarat in 2002, Indian election frontrunner Narendra Modi has backed away from his party’s traditional Hindu nationalism as he has worked to make himself more palatable to a broader swath of the electorate. While he got his political start in a militant, Hindu nationalist youth group, Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party have recently presented themselves more as the pro-business, pro-development voice of the growing urban middle class.

But the old BJP, evidently, still has its adherents. Giriraj Singh, the leader of the party in the state of Bihar, said while campaigning on Saturday that “those who want to stop Narendra Modi (from becoming prime minister) are looking towards Pakistan. In the coming days, they will have no place in India. They will only have place in Pakistan.”

Singh may face hate speech charges for the remark, and election authorities have barred him from campaigning. He has responded by accusing authorities of ignoring similarly incendiary remarks from Modi’s rivals.

Modi, meanwhile, has disavowed the comments, saying “ the mantra of my government is absence of fear.” The latest hate speech controversy comes just days after the election commission lifted another campaigning ban, this one on Modi’s Uttar Pradesh campaign manager, who had urged voters to reject Muslim candidates.

The controversies will give some ammunition to the BJP’s beleaguered opponents, but assuming he is elected, they could complicate his efforts on the international stage as well. The U.S., along with several European governments and Australia, only recently restored ties with Modi, quietly removing him from a visa ban list he had been on due to the Gujarat riots.

The outside world will necessarily have to deal with whoever the voters select this month, but the comments of some of his top allies are lending credence to some of the worst suspicions outsiders have about the country’s likely next leader.