Why Narendra Modi is India’s Most Loved and Loathed Politician

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Narendra Modi is on the cover of TIME this week in South Asia, available to subscribers here. Modi is the most polarizing politician in India, rarely gives interviews and is a possible future prime minister, but it bears repeating that putting Modi on the cover is not an endorsement. Researching and eventually interviewing Modi was, however, fascinating, and yielded several surprises.

The road to his office in Gandhinagar, a smooth, featureless four-lane highway, held the first one: Modi ordered the demolition of about 120 small Hindu shrines to make room for it, despite vehement objections from his Hindu nationalist allies. Modi may be portrayed as an ideologue, but he is more complicated than that. “He’s the only leader in the country who would be able to destroy a temple and get away with it, and still be called acceptable in Hindu politics,” says Tridip Suhrud, a social scientist based in Ahmedabad.

Modi’s reaction to my questions about his childhood was also surprising. He didn’t romanticize Vadnagar, the town where he grew up. He had little to say about his “very average family,” whose entire house, he says, could fit into the chief minister’s office. He left home at 17 to join the RSS, so he doesn’t have the polish of those politicians educated in elite institutions, but his English was nearly flawless, and he clearly believes in the power of the individual to educate, improve and reinvent himself. “I have never gone to college,” Modi says. “But books were my best friends.”

Most of the story weighs the two sides of the central paradox of Modi’s rise: for some, he will always be the man who presided over the 2002 anti-Muslim violence, and there are millions who will never forgive him and hope that he will eventually face criminal charges. (Modi has always denied any wrongdoing, and said he did the best that he could to protect the people of his state.) For others, 2002 is a distant memory, and Modi is fully rehabilitated as a paragon of good governance and effective administration. Those may seem like two irreconcilable halves, but spend any time in Gujarat, and both are simultaneously visible.

I first met Virendra Mhaiskar, CEO of the road building company IRB, for example, while researching a story on infrastructure in India. “Mr. Modi is looked upon with different lenses in different parts of the world,” Mhaiskar told me. He recalled submitting a $42 million bid to complete a section of Ahmedabad’s excellent bus rapid-transit system. The entire bidding process was done online — no cups of tea with mid-level bureaucrats, no photo-ops with local politicians. “Even today, I don’t know who the mayor is,” he says.

It’s possible to find similar sentiments even among Muslims. “What happened in Gujarat 10 years back was the darkest phase in the history of Gujarat,” says Mohsin Sheikh, 56, an artist who lives in the Muslim enclave of Sarkhej in Ahmedabad. “I am hopeful that the victims will soon get justice. At the same time, I think that everyone should try to forget what happened a decade back and move on. Gujarat’s development is benefiting not just one community but all the people of Gujarat, irrespective of caste and religion.” That’s the argument that Modi will have to make if he ever wants to win national office: that economic development is more important than court verdicts or compensation, and that he can deliver growth and prosperity for everyone.

With the Congress Party-led coalition facing wide criticism for corruption and ineffectiveness, Modi’s chances look good. But he will also have to overcome opposition within his own party. During a decade as chief minister, he has earned quite a few enemies. “He believes that if you really want to do certain things, you cannot waste time in discussions and compromising,” says Ghanshyam Shah, a political scientist in Ahmedabad. Those who challenged him, including ministers in his own cabinet, were shut out, and Modi refused to allow them to stand for election on BJP tickets. One faction split off into a new party; another group defected to the opposition. By the end of 2006, Modi had effectively replaced the entire political leadership of the state with those loyal to him. “In Gujarat, the BJP became Modi – one voice,” says Shah. “Anyone who had a different voice had no place within the party.” That approach has left Modi alienated within his own party, but he’ll need the BJP machinery to actually run a national campaign. Even if he doesn’t become prime minister, Modi offers a glimpse of what India might be like if it became, as some of its critics wish, a little more like China. He represents a new kind of Indian politician — democratically elected but authoritarian in style and spirit. “The future belongs to him,” says Suhrud. “The future belongs to that kind of politics.”

—With reporting by Sagheer Mahdi/Ahmedabad