The largest election in world history came to a close on Monday. When results are announced, the global community may find itself in an uncomfortable position.
There are two main parties vying to win control of the Lok Sabha, India's equivalent to the House of Commons. The Congress, a left-of-centre party whose leadership since India's Independence has been vested within the Gandhi family (ironically, unrelated to Mahatma Gandhi), is looking for re-election under the helm of the Gandhi dynasty's own Justin Trudeau, Rahul. The BJP, a centre-right party, has campaigned on combating government corruption and reviving India's stagnant economy.
Exit polls indicate that the BJP is headed for a landslide victory, and possible majority government. However, its leader Narendra Modi remains somewhat of a political pariah in the Western world. Being Prime Minister of the largest democracy on earth will test the extent to which democracies worldwide will welcome leaders with blemished human rights records.
In 2002, Modi was Chief Minister of the wealthy state of Gujurat when ethnic violence broke out and claimed the lives of over 1,000 people, mostly Muslim. Modi was widely criticized in Indian juridical and civil society circles for remaining silent, delaying the deployment of police to halt the atrocities, and failing to investigate the riots and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Indian Courts have cleared Modi of direct involvement in the riots. But since 2002, Western countries have consistently given him the cold shoulder for what occurred. During Modi's tenure as Chief Minister, the European Union placed a travel ban on him. The British government, for its part, banned its High Commissioner from meeting Modi for over a decade. Only in 2012, when it became apparent that Modi would play an active role in Indian federal politics, did the chilly relationship begin to thaw. The United States continues to deny Modi a visa, a restriction that the State Department has promised to lift if he is elected.
The Economist magazine, in its April 3, 2014 issue, refused to endorse the BJP due to lingering questions regarding Modi's connection to the riots. The libertarian magazine's uncharacteristic endorsement of the socialist Congress Party highlighted the common discomfort with Modi. Equally important, it also drew accusations of neo-imperialism and paternalism.
The West's shortlist of approved world leaders is, of course, an exercise in hypocrisy. The dedication to human rights that informs the stance against Modi is cheapened by the West's past support for leaders whose abhorrent human rights records are firmly established, from Mobutu in the DRC to Pinochet in Chile. And while the West may be disenchanted with India's enthusiasm for Modi, we sometimes forget that several of our most prized and distinguished leaders are also identified with unsavoury human rights abuses; Winston Churchill's leadership during the suppression of the Kenyan Mau-Mau uprising being an unfortunate case in point.
Nor is it realistic for the West to consistently demand leaders with angelic records. In seeking to mend old wounds after a brutal civil war in Mozambique, the leader of the rebel group was made Vice President. We don't question the legitimacy of Paul Kagame's ascent to the Presidency in Rwanda, despite the Rwandan Patriotic Front's imperfect record. The unique circumstances in post-genocide Rwanda demanded pragmatism and leniency.
There are of course limits to what we should tolerate. No one should suggest that the crimes of the Slobodan Milosovics, Omar al-Bashirs, and Charles Taylors of the world be overlooked. But on the spectrum between murderous ethnic cleansers, on the one hand, and Mother Theresa, on the other, there is room for flexibility.
Modi's election allows us to confront this dilemma. We can accept him as a partner among democratic nations or continue to rebuff him for sitting idly by during a massacre.
If Modi becomes Prime Minister, the world must accept the outcome of India's democratic process. The question is whether we will also be willing, or should be willing, to forget his past and move on.