Why foreign media called Modi a 'divisive Hindu' leader

The high adrenaline drama around Narendra Modi's 'coronation' as BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, has few precedents in the political history of India.

The tussle within the BJP, the defence and the offence within the party, opponents Congress making raucous observations on another party's business and the part-sickening, part-amusing online battle over the BJP's choice of its PM candidate made sure that Narendra Modi's days of glory in the BJP began with the proverbial bang. While it isn't usual for the international media to devote column space to the internal politics of an Indian party that has not been in power for close to a decade, the tug-of-war around the Gujarat CM made sure he made it to headlines in all international publications. Part curious, part apprehensive the international media's depiction of Narendra Modi leans towards his reputation for being a 'polarising' figure.

The New York Times' headline for the report on Modi's elevation within the BJP reads: "Divisive Nationalist to lead Opposition in Indian vote". The article, predictably, begins with a reference to the Gujarat riots - evidently, an event that the global media still associates Modi with, before anything else. Given that the United States has till now refused to budge on their stand against Modi and hasn't offered him a US Visa yet, it is probably understandable why the American media chooses to side with the popular sentiments around Modi in their home country.

A screengrab from http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au.

A screengrab from http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au.

Though the article goes on to trace the trajectory of Modi's political life following the riots, at the very beginning of the article, NYT says:

Mr. Modi sits astride deep fissures in India’s polyglot society, with many ethnic fault lines that sometimes explode into violence. He is widely despised by Muslims here for the role he played in the 2002 Gujarat riots, when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in brutal attacks that led babies to be impaled and women to be thrown alive onto burning pyres.

The Washington Post chooses to call Narendra Modi a 'Hindu Ideologue' in their report on his anointment as BJP's PM candidate. Their headline reads: "India’s main opposition party names Hindu ideologue as candidate for PM if it wins 2014 polls."

The article, reproduced from The Associated Press, begins with the following lines and yet again, a reference to the 2002 carnage in Gujarat.

"India’s main opposition Hindu nationalist party on Friday named a controversial Hindu ideologue as its candidate for prime minister if it wins national elections next year."

The article also mentions the BJP's internal strife and how senior leader LK Advani refused to be party to the BJP's majority decision, thereby underscoring the divisive role Narendra Modi plays in the political discourse of India.

Announcing that India's main opposition has declared 'Hindu nationalist' Narendra Modi as their Prime Ministerial candidate, an article on The Guardian notes that critics make him out to be an 'extremist' who is to blame for the '2002 mob violence against the Muslims'. However, the article proceeds to observe that Modi's connect with the masses pose a serious threat to the elitism embodied by Rahul Gandhi.

The Daily Telegraph again calls Modi the 'Controversial Indian politician', and comments that though Modi is ragingly popular with the BJP and a certain section of the educated middle class in India, his dreams of becoming the Prime Minister might remain unrealised. Noting how Muslims view him with 'deep suspicion' the report says:

"Despite the endorsement of his party, Mr Modi's ambition of becoming prime minister will be hard to realise. This is partly because he is such a polarising figure."

The Australian edition of The Telegraph is by far the most blunt in their description of Narendra Modi. Their headline reads, "Divisive Indian politician to run in 2014".

Though Modi, in his recent speeches has steadfastly steered clear of references to religion and concentrated on the policy paralysis brought on by the UPA, his image - at least globally - remains as that of a leader whose religious affiliations outrun the other components of his politics.

The US government's refusal to yield even after the United Kingdom shifted gears on him, probably partially forms the basis of the international media's appropriation of him as a divisive, intensely communal political figure. It is probably interesting to note here, that while promotional posters went up in Mumbai where Modi is seen declaring himself a 'proud Hindu nationalist' , the Gujarat CM himself has not made too many references to issues of religious communities in his important public addresses.

A part of the international media's constant reference to him as divisive can be attributed to the vehement and often vitriolic web discourse around the leader whose ardent fans stop at nothing to abuse his critics and get into violent online brawls. In fact, if Modi's own politicking is compared to what is made out of it in social media by both fans and critics, one will see that the 'anti-secular', 'Hindutva-saving' persona is one that has been created more by social media dialogues than his own politics in the recent times. And for international publications observing the turning tides of Indian politics from a distance, where the closest they get to the ground realities is through the internet, it is only fair to brand the man idolised by a virulent, loud, anti-secular and vehemently pro-Hindu pack of netizens as divisive and polarising.

Also given that Modi has constantly avoided questions on the Gujarat riots in the recent past and his only memorable explanation was reduced to a severely botched up 'puppy' metaphor,  he keeps the global media's obsession with the riots and his role in it conveniently fired.

Dawn, a leading Pakistani daily, says in its headline about him, 'BJP nominates hardliner Modi as PM candidate'. One of the pre-requisites of a Prime Ministerial candidate is strong diplomatic relations with global leaders.

If the foreign media is anything to go by, the mood around Modi in the international political circles is still peppered with a fair amount of apprehension. Given that he has already started showing signs of statesmanship given his softened his stance on Pakistan, he might want to pay a little more attention to international relations alongside his quota of UPA bashing.