From a political outcast to rock star

Once the outcast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the man the other leaders are seeking out this week at the G20

Updated - November 16, 2021 06:46 pm IST

Published - November 16, 2014 12:47 am IST

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (left) welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the G20 Leaders' Summit in Brisbane on Saturday.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (left) welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the G20 Leaders' Summit in Brisbane on Saturday.

For a decade, Narendra Modi was an international political outcast.

What publicity the Chief Minister of Gujarat could attract outside his homeland was only ever condemnatory, and his political career, barely begun, appeared on the verge of oblivion. The U.S. refused to grant him a visa, and it was made clear he was unwelcome in Britain and Europe, who imposed diplomatic boycotts.

Mr. Modi was ostracised for his actions, or inactions, during the Godhra riots in 2002.

As Chief Minister, he was accused of allowing the riots to rage, even of fomenting the violence of Hindu vigilantes. Mr. Modi has always denied the allegations and none have been proven against him.

Once the outcast, Mr. Modi arrived at the G20 on Friday as the political rock star of the summit. As the new Prime Minister of the largest democracy, the 64-year-old is the man the other leaders are seeking out this week.

Across three continents, Mr. Modi will meet the leaders of 40 countries during his 10 days out of India — at the East Asia summit and the G20.

But India’s political Lazarus is also one of the country’s most unlikely Prime Ministers. In a country of caste hierarchy and established social privilege, Modi has risen, literally, from chaiwallah — a roadside tea vendor — to the most powerful man in the land. Famously ascetic, teetotal and vegetarian, he meditates, practises yoga and shuns the trappings of office.

In office, Mr. Modi has been careful to cultivate that connection to his Hindu nationalist heartland. He speaks excellent English but is reluctant to. Instead he almost always chooses Hindi.

On Friday, at the Queensland University of Technology, he was invited to sign his name on a prototype agricultural robot. He chose, instead, to write a note in his mother tongue and the language he writes poetry in, Gujarati, penning: “The developing journey of humanity is a continuous stream of research.”

It was apt. For all his traditionalism, Mr. Modi has embraced technology. India’s mobile phone-enchanted youth follow him on Twitter — six million and counting — and he has even appeared as a hologram at a campaign rally.

Modi came to power on a platform of progress, of cleaning up India, figuratively and literally. He promised reform of India’s grubby political classes, starting with the country’s byzantine bureaucracy, oft-derided for its corruption and inefficiency but itself an immensely powerful institution.

And he has insisted the country physically clean itself up, choosing Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary to launch the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan enjoining Indians to sweep, tidy and beautify parks, streets and public places.

Yet his cleanup hasn’t entirely succeeded. Twenty of Modi’s ministers — almost a third of his 66-member cabinet — face criminal charges, including attempted murder, rape, waging war on the state, criminal intimidation and fraud. And there remain serious concerns about his style of governance.

As he arrived in Australia on Friday, the American Justice Center filed a criminal complaint with the commonwealth director of public prosecution alleging Mr. Modi was guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide. The complaint will, almost certainly, not amount to a prosecution. But controversy will attend his every move in Australia.

But the Australian government judged the political wind on Modi earlier than most countries. During his period in the wilderness Australia remained one of his few friends in the west. He visited in 2004 and was always carefully cultivated as an ally. He is now repaying that faith.

Beyond his G20 obligations, Modi will meet with Tony Abbott, address the Australian parliament and speak to the Indian diaspora and business leaders in Sydney and in Melbourne.

Other countries, sensing Modi’s imminent victory and accepting it when it happened, have since taken the realpolitikal option and dropped their opposition to him.

Whatever may have occurred at Godhra, Mr, Modi is the legitimate, democratically elected Prime Minister and a hugely powerful leader on the world stage. He is the man with whom other leaders must deal when they come to India, the man who will likely rule the emerging economic giant for a decade.

However unlikely it may once have seemed, > Mr. Modi is one of the most popular figures at this G20 . A leader others want to see, and be seen with. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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