When the controversial Indian politician Narendra Modi sailed to reelected victory last month in regional elections in Gujarat, it was difficult to find anyone who didn't have the urge to cry. Some shed tears of joy and others of despair, but any reaction in between was rare. Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is at once celebrated for his dedication to good governance and economic growth and reviled for his autocratic style of governing and alleged role in the brutal violence waged against his state's minority Muslim community in 2002. Given the passionate feelings that surround him, Modi's emergence on the national political scene as India's attention turns to countrywide elections in 2014 could open up a rare substantive debate about the role of government in the world's largest democracy.

After the results of Gujarat's election were announced, Modi delivered a fiery acceptance speech in Hindi (as opposed to Gujarati, his native tongue). It was a tell-tale sign that he is setting his sights on national politics. Modi is widely expected to try and stand as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in upcoming parliamentary elections. The role is likely his for the taking: The BJP has long languished on the opposition benches in New Delhi, its leadership is seen as weak and incoherent, and the party rank and file are demanding a campaign built around competent, efficient governance. Even those within the party and among its coalition partners who find the idea of a Prime Minister Modi abhorrent recognize that there are few plausible alternatives.

Although Modi's entry into national politics could further polarize India, it also carries a silver lining -- one even his detractors should acknowledge. For perhaps the first time in recent memory, an Indian election campaign promises to focus on substantive issues of development and democracy instead of the usual fare of caste politics and clientelism.

This fall, during the run-up to the state election, Modi and his BJP compatriots campaigned heavily on their stewardship of Gujarat's economy. They pointed to the state's high growth rates (between 2001 and 2010, its economy grew an average of over 10 percent each year) and favorable business climate (a recent study found that 12.5 percent of outstanding private-sector investments in India are earmarked for Gujarat). Critics, meanwhile, argued that the state's pro-growth record predates Modi -- according to one estimate, Gujarat recorded the highest rate of growth between 1988 and 2003, a boom for which Modi, who took office in 2001, can hardly claim full responsibility. Further, they maintained, growth in the last few years was thanks primarily mostly to the follow-on effects of national economic liberalization in the early 1990s. In those years,  Manmohan Singh, who is the current prime minster but was finance minister at the time, deregulated the private sector, reduced trade barriers, and opened up the economy to greater foreign investment.

All this was to the benefit of Gujarat, which has an entrepreneurial ethos, a large foreign diaspora, and a vast coastline. In the Times of India, one Gujarati businessman recently compared Modi's role in Gujarati's good fortunes to icing a cake: "You have a nice cake and Modi has done a lot of good icing." The debate during the election had no conclusive end, but that in and of itself was not a bad thing: It produced thoughtful policy papers, opinion pieces, and even books by both sides. Voters, too, got in on the discussion of how GDP is calculated and whether it is the best measure of a state's performance.

The fight over Modi's economic legacy also broadened into a larger debate over social welfare. Modi's critics argued that despite high growth rates, Gujarat fares very poorly on a litany of human development indicators. From rates of malnutrition to rates of literacy and infant mortality, Gujarat ranks in the middle or near the bottom of India's states. Modi's retort is that Indians should focus not on Gujarat's absolute position on the scale but on the trends, many of which are improving. He also reiterates that the best solution to Gujarat's developmental failings -- as well as those of India as a whole -- would be to concentrate on pro-growth policies in the hope that the benefits will trickle down to the masses. Modi's opponents disparage his focus on "elite growth," the worst symbol of which, in their eyes, is his dogged courtship of India's biggest business families. This debate, too, would not have seemed out of place in an advanced industrial democracy such as the United States.

Beyond economics, the election season sparked a passionate conversation about just how liberal India's democracy should be. Those who believe that democracy has been too unruly -- pointing to, for instance, its dysfunctional judiciary, fragmented party system, and burdensome bureaucracy -- cheered Modi's ambition to construct, in the words of his supporters, "India's little Singapore." They applauded his decisive, CEO-style of governing and celebrated his aptitude for attracting domestic and foreign investors. His detractors, however, lamented the fact that Modi has skillfully quashed checks and balances on his authority by restricting other voices within his own party and refusing to appoint anyone to the powerful position of lokayukta (anti-corruption ombudsman), preferring instead to leave the post vacant. Meanwhile, Modi has taken India's already highly personality-driven politics to the extreme: On the stump, he repeatedly urged adoring crowds to select him, not the BJP, instructing them: "Vote for [me], the one you have known for 11 years." In a stunning display of savvy electioneering, Modi used 3-D technology to beam his holographic image simultaneously to 52 rallies across the state. In the words of the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, with the exception of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, "never before had an Indian politician saturated the political space the way [Modi] did" during the 2012 campaign.

Accompanying the discussion about liberalism was one about majoritarianism. Modi's backers boasted of his unabashed Hindu nationalism, but also reminded critics that there has been no significant outbreak of communal violence in the past decade (the Gujarati metropolis of Ahmedabad nevertheless holds the dubious distinction as the most riot-affected city in post-independence India). Of course, as critics point out, in the aftermath of the 2002 violence, there have also been no real attempts to reconcile Gujarat's Hindu majority with its Muslims, who comprise nearly ten percent of the state's population. Despite carrying out a series of fasts to promote statewide peace, the BJP neither nominated a single Muslim candidate nor put forward any inclusionary policies, such as social programs that would benefit the largely urban Muslim poor or encourage less segregation. Instead, the state's growing ghettos, including Juhapura, home to over 300,000 Muslims, and Citizen Nagar, home to Muslims displaced by communal violence and a huge municipal trash dump, continue to grow in size while their residents struggle for access to basic services such as education and clean water. That neglect did not likely have a material effect on the election outcome -- as a voting bloc, Muslims in Gujarat are too small and disorganized to have a dramatic impact -- but Modi's record on issues of concern to Muslims will be hotly debated if he competes for the nation's top job.

If the BJP backs Modi as its candidate for prime minster, it could inflame social, religious, economic, and political divisions. But it could also provoke a real debate about what kind of India its 1.2 billion citizens want. Given the fierce debate over Gujarat's economic and social legacy, a Modi candidacy could prompt questions about the most effective policies the government can pursue to attract growth, sustain private investment, ensure that rapid growth can be translated into rapid human development, and protect the rights of the disadvantaged. Such debates about substantive issues are hard to come by in developing democracies, where the temptations of populism and demagoguery are rife. Indeed, in India, the middle class has historically maintained an arm's length relationship with politics. In recent months, there have been tremors of its awakening, leading to vociferous protests on issues ranging from gender violence to corruption. The rise of Modi, who is fodder for a hearty debate if nothing else, could pull them yet further into the national conversation, making India's democracy all the stronger.  

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  • MILAN VAISHNAV is an Associate with the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You can follow him on Twitter @MilanV.
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