Narendra Modi and the TIME 100: Even an Online Poll Sparks Controversy

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Raveendran / AFP / Getty Images

Gujarat Chief minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech in Jaipur on January 9, 2012.

The annual TIME 100 poll is no stranger to sensational results. It once triggered a comic dance-off between an American television icon and a Korean pop superstar. More often than not, though, the online poll showcases the collective power of the Internet — invariably, the heroes of cyber subversives and netizens-in-the-know rise to the forefront, outstripping the world’s traditional powerbrokers. The top two most influential people in the world, according to you, the voters, are the hacktivist collective Anonymous and Erik Martin, general manager of the information-sharing site Reddit. You’ll have to scroll down the results page for a while to find GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

But another right-wing politician did come in third: India’s Narendra Modi. The controversial Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat, Modi is, as a recent TIME International cover story discussed, one of the most polarizing figures in the world’s largest democracy: to his supporters, he’s a pro-business reformer and man of action who ought to be the country’s next Prime Minister; to some of his critics, he is little better than a war criminal, complicit in the hideous 2002 religious riots in Gujarat that took place under his watch in which hundreds died.

(READ: Why Modi means business.)

Not surprisingly, Modi’s Hindu nationalist backers seemed to have rushed to the poll, helping him soar ahead of well-known U.S. personalities like President Obama and Lady Gaga. But so too did his detractors. In addition to quite a few “Yes” votes, Modi amassed the most “No” votes of anyone featured on the poll — more than 260,000.

Of course, given how heated any discussion of Modi becomes in India, the poll itself turned into something of a hot potato. Eight months ahead of local elections in Gujarat, a politico from the Congress party (in opposition in Gujarat, but in power in New Delhi, where Modi’s BJP is its chief opponent) labeled him an “internet manipulator,” using TIME’s poll to boost his own standing. Seeing Modi’s rise up the poll, opponents banded together, in some cases sending mass emails urging Indians to “save the future” of their country by voting “No” against Modi. A Congress party spokesman hailed the results of this effort:

What the supporters of the Chief Minister were doing was just a manipulation of the internet to make him repositioned as one of the top influential leader of year. This was not a natural vote as we know that his supporters were manipulating it. So his opponents have voted against him as they have come to know reality of things in Gujarat.

That reality, though, has little to do with the over-heated buzz and spin surrounding an unscientific online poll. Still, it’s proof that Gujarat’s Chief Minister casts a very long shadow over Indian politics. In an interview while in India, TIME editor-at-large Bobby Ghosh explained the prominence given to Modi on the magazine’s cover and website: “Being on the cover of TIME is neither a prize nor an endorsement. It is a sign of a person’s importance, or of their influence, certainly. Modi is unquestionably both of those things.”