Narendra Modi Image Credit: EPA

On a balmy December day on the outskirts of New Delhi, thousands of people poured into a dusty field to hear Narendra Modi speak. The combative 63-year-old politician, sporting a neatly trimmed silver beard, frameless glasses, and light beige tunic, took the stage one year after a brutal December 2012 gang rape in India’s capital sparked nationwide protests. Tens of thousands of rapes are reported in India each year, yet few are brought to trial and even fewer are successfully prosecuted. Of the 706 rape cases filed in 2012, only one has resulted in a conviction. “Remember Nirbhaya!” Modi bellowed to the crowd. The politician invoked the name — meaning the “fearless one,” which the public gave to the gang-rape victim — to push a message for the parliamentary election, taking place in April and May, which Modi’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to win, earning him the prime minister’s seat.

Delhi, he said at the rally, has “earned a bad name as the rape capital. When you vote, do not forget this.”

For Modi, it is advantageous to couch rape in the context of governance, where his strength as a candidate lies. The Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat since 2001, Modi has staked his candidacy on his home state’s strong economic performance and has positioned himself as the pragmatic pro-business alternative to his leading challenger, Rahul Gandhi of the incumbent Congress party. Many women seem to view India’s current election as a referendum on governmental incompetence and corruption, which has stymied efforts to crack down on sexual assaults. (There are no reliable polls measuring Modi’s popularity with women voters.) It is here that Modi, with his strong law-and-order credentials, has been successful. But there are other parts of Modi’s record that he would prefer women — who make up 49 per cent of India’s 814 million eligible voters — to forget: A social conservative aligned with the Hindutva (the Hindu identity) movement, a radical brand of political Hinduism, Modi is hardly an advocate for women’s rights.

In February 2002, just five months after Modi assumed office, clashes between Hindus and Muslims broke out in Gujarat after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from the holy city of Ayodhya was set on fire. The resulting three days of rioting left an estimated 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus dead. Scores of women, many of whom were Muslim, were raped during the pogroms, according to Amnesty International.

While a 2012 report by a Supreme Court-appointed investigative team exonerated Modi of any wrongdoing, India’s National Human Rights Commission, a government agency, found that Modi’s administration failed “to control the persistent violation of the rights to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the people of the State”. Modi’s perceived unwillingness to aggressively prosecute the rapists in the years after the violence unsettled many Gujaratis.

Even for those who believe Modi was innocent in 2002, his politics come with a baggage: The BJP is the standard-bearer for Hindutva — a conservative ideology that enshrines problematic gender identities in its vision of Hindu culture. The leaders of the Hindu right, including Modi, “fashioned an image of Indian masculinity as aggressive and warlike,” wrote Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and academic at the University of Chicago, in her 2007 book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. Hindutva ideologues often celebrate women who are sexually pure, subservient and domestic. Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the right-wing Hindutva organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which Modi campaigned with in his 20s and 30s, reportedly said in January 2013 that when “women living in cities follow a western lifestyle,” rape happens.

Domination over Hindu women “lie[s] deep in the Hindu right’s political consciousness,” wrote Nussbaum, a comment echoed by others. Urvashi Butalia, who co-founded Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house, told AFP: “The BJP has never been particularly known for its progressive attitudes towards women and there’s no reason to believe a Modi government would be good news for women.” (By contrast, Modi’s leading challenger, Rahul, a secularist who hails from a family of imposing matriarchs like former prime minister Indira Gandhi, is viewed as being sympathetic to women’s issues, but lacking the leadership skills to bring about change.)

Still, Modi is unapologetic about his Hindutva links. Last summer, the BJP plastered Mumbai with posters depicting Modi above a slogan that read “I am Hindu Nationalist”. He tries to balance the Hindutva message with pro-development statements like “My identity is of a Hindutvawadi [Hindutva-ist], but I say build toilets before you build temples.” Yet, amid his message of economic growth, his edgier religious rhetoric remains: In July he accused Congress of hiding behind the “burqa of secularism”.

The only scandal associated with Modi and women broke in November 2013, when the investigative news sites Gulail.com and Cobrapost.com alleged that Modi had used state intelligence agencies and anti-terrorism squad officers in 2009 to stalk a young woman for at least two months. In what the Indian media is dubbing “Stalkgate” or “Snoopgate,” the sites claimed to have obtained audiotapes on which Amit Shah, then Gujarat’s home minister, is heard ordering a high-ranking police officer to snoop on the woman at the behest of “saheb” — an honorific, often used for Modi. The BJP does not deny that the woman was monitored: The party circulated a letter to the press allegedly written by the father of the woman stating that the police were only looking out for “her own interest, safety and security”. (When reached for comment, BJP spokesperson M.J. Akbar said that the stalking claims are “a lie that has been planted by the government”.) That a person accused of surveilling a woman is running for prime minister “is really quite shocking,” says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, a left-wing women’s association.

In terms of general competence, however, voters credit Modi with keeping crime and corruption down in his home state of Gujarat. “He has maintained very good law and order in Gujarat,” says Brahma Chellaney, one of India’s leading strategic thinkers. In the state’s urban centres, “you see women walking by themselves late at night, which you don’t see in other big Indian cities. His success in enforcing law and order and his record in combating corruption definitely appeal to women voters”.

Asifa Khan, a national executive committee member of the BJP’s minority wing, a group dedicated to addressing the concerns of minorities, and one of Modi’s most prominent Muslim women backers, said in February 2013 that “his popularity among women is phenomenal. Women in Gujarat are grateful that they can roam about freely even late at night”. Modi hopes that his perceived track record of bureaucratic competence will be enough to attract women’s support. Given that governance, along with the economy, is a top priority for all constituencies in this election, voters may overlook his problematic history.

But a Modi win will likely embolden Hindutva organisations all over India, which have been kept in check by the ruling secular Congress party. This will not bode well for women’s rights, which has to do with more than just safe streets. “He has not made a single statement which really represents a progressive agenda for women,” says Krishnan, who played a key role in organising the 2012 Delhi gang-rape protest. She added that for women, “his victory would represent a nightmare”.

— Washington Post

Fontanella-Khan is the author of Pink Sari Revolution, a book on the women’s movement in India.