Opinion polls in India are almost unanimously predicting that Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, will emerge the winner in the country's parliamentary elections. The only real question, it seems, is by how much?
Not so fast, says Zahir Janmohamed. He lives in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Modi's home district of Gujarat, where he's a writer.
"This election really is about the economy," he said. "Under the ruling Congress Party, the economy has been slumping, and many who support Modi see him as a way to resurrect the economy. And there is economic progress in Modi's home district of Gujarat state."
The BJP is one of two major political parties in India. Modi, the party's leader, is seen as one of India's most divisive politicians; loved and loathed in equal measure, a dynamic leader who has turned his state into an economic powerhouse.
"Modi does deserve credit for some of that, but what's oftentimes forgotten is that Gujarat has always been a propserous state," Janmohamed said. "Now, I think the real challenge is: Can Modi spread this economic prosperity throughout India? I don't see that really happening, because if you look at the growth in Gujarat, it's largely benefitted the elites."
There are also a significant number of people — Muslim and Hindu — who are fearful about his ultra-Hindu nationalist past. Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat during deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims in 2002. They allegedly began when a train carrying Hindus was attacked in the city of Godhra. Modi was quick to blame the attack on terrorists.
As Janmohamed writes about the incident:
The next morning, a Hindu mob carrying swords, torches, and kerosene-filled bottles walked on my all-Hindu street in Ahmedabad looking for Muslims — Muslims like me — to kill. They made us shout names of Hindu deities that my parents taught me to say with reverence. In the distance I could see a lone business, owned by a Muslim, up in flames.
Many contend that Modi condoned what Janmohamed called "a pogrom." But he's always denied any knowledge of what Hindus were planning.
"The one thing that's kind of chilling about this election is that up until the last week, he (Modi) hasn't really subjected himself to any interviews ... and the media has really sort of touched him with soft gloves. He hasn't really been grilled on the 2002 riots, for example," Janmohamed said. "And one thing that I'm really worried about is free speech in India. What will happen? There are a lot of great books about Modi that were supposed to be published before the election, but have been delayed until after. And that's a sort of very chilling sign of the times we live in in India."
Even if Modi were to lose spectacularly in the elections, though, the divisions he's helped intensify will remain, Janmohamed said.
"What's really happened is, for a lot of Muslims, they look in disbelief that so many Indians across the country are willing to forgive Modi for what happened in 2002. And they sort of shake their heads and think, 'What is our place in Indian society if Narendra Modi becomes prime minister?'"
Zahir Janmohamed is a freelance writer based in Ahmedabad, India. He was an eye-witness to the communal riots in Gujarat, India in 2002 when he was a Bill Clinton Service Corp Fellow with the America India Foundation and he is now writing a memoir about the aftermath of the violence set in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura.