By: John Elliott

Set aside the debate about Narendra Modi and his accountability for the 2002 Godhra riots and focus on the more immediate issue of whether he is capable of being a competent prime minister.

Could he rebuild an effective government machine and deliver economic growth, or is he too autocratic and abrasive to be the politically competent prime minister that India needs? That is the real issue that matters now, but 2002 hogs the headlines and the minds of campaigners.

The real issue now is whether Modi could run a government in three key ways – picking top people to run the Prime Minister’s Office with him, picking and working with senior ministers and bureaucrats to run major departments, and working with chief ministers in the states so that policies can be implemented.

India suffers today not from a lack of new laws, policies or ideas, but from appalling implementation of government decisions. That is caused by cumbersome outdated laws and regulations, bloated bureaucracies, political infighting, and endemic corruption. It is unlikely that Modi will do much to curb crony capitalism, but what he does need to be able to do is to make the prime minister’s office, the major government departments, and the states work in unison.

Modi’s autocratic record in Gujarat does not indicate he has the ability to do this. Nor, to be fair, does it show that he cannot because he has not needed to do so as chief minister. No one therefore knows how he perform as prime minister and that is the issue that should be debated now, not whether or not he was guilty at Godhra.

The problem is that most people – including the liberal media – have been in denial for the past decade or so about his potential rise. They have never believed he would get so far and are now reacting with shock and horror when it is almost certainly too late to dislodge him over 2002. Even last year many were dismissing the idea of him becoming the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate as being beyond belief.

I first wrote 12 years ago in July 2002 that Modi was a potential national leader. I suggested in a column for India’s Business Standard that, unlike most politicians, he was arguing as Gujarat chief minister passionately for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction.

He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground and presenting his case with rare confidence and élan – and, whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence (some called it ego). This was not an endorsement but, to a bystander, he looked like a logical heir for L.K.Advani.

“Friends and contacts told me that I was wrong and asked how a man who had presided in the state as chief minister during such ghastly bloody carnage could ever win popular respect and a wide following,” I wrote. “Weren’t Gujarat’s people tiring of the violence, and wasn’t he in fact already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job? The BJP, I was told, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners”.

I returned to the subject on this blog in 2008 when, after the horror of the Mumbai terrorist attacks on the Taj and Oberoi hotels and other targets, people questioned how India could recover from appalling governance and inefficient security services.

I wrote that I had heard two extreme ideas. One was to have a state of emergency or even military rule, which was surely unthinkable. The other was that the country needed tough rule by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by its highly controversial Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. “I wonder how long it will be before the failings of more acceptable politicians leads to Modi becoming prime minister?”, I asked.

A couple of days later, an opinion poll published by Mumbai’s DNA daily newspaper (left) showed a majority of respondents in the city favoured Modi as most likely “to provide the kind of leadership required to bring about real change” following the terror attacks. Modi led with a dramatic 47 percent while Advani, Singh, and Gandhi got 10-13 percent each. That was significant because, since then Mumbai’s business community has promoted Modi as the leader needed to restore leadership and effective government.

These points are worth reiterating because the time to stop Modi’s rise was up to about two years ago, but all that most people did was to refuse to believe he could succeed. Congress leaders similarly thought that they had a good chance of winning this year’s general election – first because the BJP was leaderless, and then because they would be able to frighten voters into rejecting such an abrasive, controversial, dictatorial and potentially socially dangerous politician such as Modi once he became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate last September.

All those adjectives are correct. He is abrasive, controversial and dictatorial. With him as prime minister, the more extremist wings of the BJP-RSS movement known as the Sangh Parivar would potentially become socially dangerous. Activists would feel free to stir up communal unrest, as Pravin Togadia, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an arch-Hindu nationalist organisation within Sangh, has just been accused of doing with an alleged hate speech against Muslims.

But I would argue that there is little point now in returning constantly to the Godhra and other extremist issues, though rabble rousers like Togadia do of course need to be restrained. Some people might be frightened at the last minute into voting against the BJP, but opinion polls have been indicating a continuing slide by the Congress Party and support for the BJP in most parts of the country.

This shows that Modi’s record at Godhra in 2002 is not stopping people swinging to him and the BJP, hoping they would be electing a strong effective prime minister. The question that needs to be examined in the final weeks of polling that ends on May 12 is surely whether he has the character and capacity to fulfil that role.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the lower right-hand corner of this page. His new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is now available internationally in hard cover and as an e-book – from the US, from the UK, in India, and Pakistan