MUMBAI — His face is everywhere in this coastal city of more than 12 million, India’s commercial capital and the home of Bollywood. His chosen hue is saffron, Hinduism’s most sacred color which is splashed on the glitzy billboards adorning busy overpasses, the signs of supporters at street corner rallies and the cups of chai handed out at political tea parties.
He is Narendra Modi, the leading political face of a growing Hindu nationalist movement and a leading candidate in India’s national elections, a six-week, $5 billion “festival of democracy” which gets underway Monday. Voters will elect a lower house of parliament that will represent the country’s 1.2 billion people — and NaMo, as he is known, has seized the moment.
The charismatic, gray-bearded prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his allies say they are hell-bent on cleaning up deeply ingrained political corruption, kickstarting India’s sputtering economic growth and boosting the country’s prestige on the world stage. Modi is expected to win a seat in parliament and his party favored to secure considerably more clout in a multi-party election that could even yield a rare majority for the BJP.
But there are many critics here in Mumbai, the birthplace and traditional stronghold of the incumbent Indian National Congress, who oppose the BJP’s platform. Despite reassuring language of Hindu ideals of tolerance and acceptance, these critics say the BJP’s policies run counter to those ideals. Though the BJP has won power before, holding the majority from 1998 to 2004, there is a sense that the current nationalist wave represents a more fundamental shift in India’s identity.
“They believe in the hegemony of a particular religion, which has never been practiced in this country,” said Indian activist Simpreet Singh, who advocates for Mumbai slum dwellers facing eviction due to development projects.
Kevin Douglas Grant reports on the politics of religion in India’s upcoming elections for GlobalPost.