In Depth

Five years on, India's "modern-day Nero" prospers

AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - He was accused of being a “modern-day Nero” who sat back while thousands of Muslims were butchered, but Narendra Modi has not only survived as chief minister of India’s western state of Gujarat, he has prospered.

Chief Minister of Gujarat and key figure of the Bharatiya Janata Party Narendra Modi addresses his supporters during an election campaign rally in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad in this April 5, 2004 file photo. Modi was accused of being a "modern-day Nero" who sat back while thousands of Muslims were butchered, but he has not only survived as chief minister of India's western state of Gujarat, he has prospered. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Middle-class Hindus in Gujarat have put behind them the horrific communal riots of 2002, as they grow richer in a state that has become a model of economic development and attracted investment from India’s biggest industrialists, analysts say.

“The middle-class attitude is shorn of any moral compunction when it comes to the riots,” said Gagan Sethi, head of the Center for Social Justice, a local group fighting for the riot-affected.

“Their apathy has only emboldened Modi.”

Human rights groups say some 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were beaten or burned to death in the western state of Gujarat five years ago, although officials put the toll at about 1,000.

The riots erupted after a fire broke out on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims on February 27, 2002, killing 59 people.

India’s Supreme Court compared Modi to Roman Emperor Nero, remembered in popular legend as playing his lyre while Rome burned. Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government looked elsewhere while innocent people were burning and was probably deliberating how to protect the killers, it said in a 2004 judgment.

The United States revoked a visa for Modi the following year, on the grounds that he was responsible for severe violations of religious freedom. But that has not deterred some of India’s leading industrialists from courting and praising Modi.

“Industry doesn’t concern itself with questions of political morality or ethics or even justice,” said Zoya Hasan, an eminent academician and member of the National Commission on Minorities.

Five years after the riots, and despite a national outcry, little has been done to catch the culprits, rights groups say, leaving Muslims in Gujarat disillusioned, alienated and afraid.

Modi has put himself forward as a champion of right-wing economics, a popular platform among a people famous throughout India for their business acumen, not least in the diamond trade.

“So long as he makes money, his business flourishes, the middle-class Gujarati Hindu is happy,” said Nisad Ahmed Ansari, a Persian scholar and politician. “They skirt moral issues.”


Under Modi’s leadership, Gujarat has become one of India’s fastest growing states, with some of its best infrastructure. His government has turned around several loss-making state-run companies and boasts impressive rates of job creation.

Industry says it supports Modi because he helps them.

“Gujarat today is about good governance, pro-active bureaucracy, solid infrastructure,” Pankaj R. Patel, head of the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Reuters.

“There is political will to prosper economically.”

But all this means little for the state’s 5.2 million Muslims, virtually relegated to second-class citizenship, many of whom pursue either menial jobs or small businesses from their ghettos.

Modi’s success feeds off a history of communal tension in a state which was invaded and plundered over the centuries, mostly by Muslims.

“In Modi, middle-class Gujaratis found a hero who first successfully projected Muslims as the villains and then assured them protection from that community,” Sethi said.

In the streets of Ahmedabad, the state’s main city, many Hindus say their chief minister has done them proud.

“Modi-ji says today we can go anywhere with our heads held high and we don’t need to worry about Muslims. It is true,” said Hitenbhai Patel, an Ahmedabad shop owner.

India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, to which Modi belongs, has stood by the chief minister since the riots, even though its leaders have described the 2002 violence as a stain on the country’s image.

Modi’s office turned down a request for an interview, but the chief minister has repeatedly said his only consideration is to promote economic growth without favoring one section of the community over another.

“I do nothing for Muslims or for Hindus,” he told the Times of India this month. “Whatever I do, I do for 50 million Gujaratis.”