Last month one of India’s most respected stock market voices, Ramesh Damani, had everyone’s attention for his take on a surge in stock prices in Indian equity markets.
In an interview to NDTV, Damani said that the improvement in “investor sentiment” in India was mainly due to the recent nomination by the main opposition party, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), of Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.
Since early September this year the Bombay Stock Exchange’s (BSE) benchmark index has stayed consistently close to its historic peak levels despite looming concerns over slow growth and high inflation. BSE is one of India’s largest stock exchanges by trading volumes.
“How do you explain the rally in front of such bad economic data? The reason I am saying there is a “Modi bull market” is because “Modi is perceived to be an able administrator, someone who gets things done. So, the market is moving ahead,” Damani told the TV channel.
Emerging in the national limelight in 2001 when he was appointed the Gujarat chief minister, Modi is often seen as a polarising figure due to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology and the religious riots of 2002, which left at least 2,000 Muslims dead according to rights’ groups.
The government’s failure to prevent the violence and the court cases that followed have ensured that Modi remains one of the most controversial names in contemporary Indian politics.
Even so, an opinion poll commissioned by Reuters news agency this year found that close to three-quarters of India’s business leaders want Modi to become the next prime minister. The survey covered chief executive officers of companies worth more than $100m across different industries.
Modi has been one of corporate India’s favourite politicians for a while now.
He is often applauded for the swift decision-making and business-friendly approach he has demonstrated as the elected head of government of the western Indian state of Gujarat.
According to the Indian industry association ASSOCHAM, Gujarat at present accounts for the highest share in the total outstanding private-sector investments than any other Indian state in attracting both domestic and foreign private investment.
Modi, now in his sixties, has aggressively wooed businesses from outside to invest in his state.
He has regularly held investor meetings with names like “Vibrant Gujarat summit” and road shows in India and abroad to sell “Brand Gujarat” to companies to encourage them to set up operations in the state.
Till now, Modi’s policies have been repeatedly rewarded with ringing public endorsement. Since 2001, the BJP led by Modi has not lost a single election in the state and has formed government every five years, winning the polls handsomely by comfortable margins.
“In Gujarat it is far easier to get government approvals for businesses than most other states,” Deepak Thakkar, an Ahmedabad-based real-estate developer, told Al Jazeera.
He said it was not hard to understand why the India’s business community wanted Modi to lead the country.
This year, as India’s GDP growth fell to almost half of its peak, many began looking at Modi’s Gujarat for inspiration. In contrast to India’s overall GDP growth, which is currently around five per cent per annum, Gujarat has maintained a steady double-digit growth in the last five years, averaging among the highest.
“When you go to Gujarat you realise how Modi has transformed the state: the roads are much better than elsewhere in India and there are no frequent power cuts,” Pratap Batra, a New Delhi-based corporate-events manager, told Al Jazeera.
“I would very much like to see the model being replicated across the country.”
Rising political stock
Despite his relatively late start in national politics, Modi’s stock has steadily risen both in the BJP and in the national arena, to the extent that he has successfully managed to win the nomination for the country’s top job by beating many other contenders.
But even as Modi seeks to improve his image and acceptability in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, many politicians and intellectuals question his commitment to India’s secular identity as well his claims of economic resurgence in Gujarat.
A recent study by a panel headed by Raghuram Rajan, the current head of India’s central bank, placed Gujarat below many other Indian states in a development index created to rank Indian states on the basis of various human-development parameters.
The study, commissioned by India’s Finance Ministry, also cast doubt on Modi’s claims of improving living standards in the state. Despite the rapid overall GDP growth and massive investments, Gujarat fares rather poorly according to government data when it comes to per capita income growth.
Currently, Gujarat is in a distant 11th place in terms of per capita income in India in state-wise rankings.
Predictably, public opinion is sharply divided on whether Modi deserves a chance to lead India in the coming years.
“I feel that there is a lot of hype around Modi and his abilities,” Nasir Hossain, a Kolkata-based hotelier, told Al Jazeera.
“India needs a secular face to lead the nation, someone who will be acceptable to all, and Modi has failed to win the trust of India’s religious minorities.”
Modi’s supporters counter that his secular credentials should not be questioned since no court in India has ever convicted him in any case related to the 2002 religious riots.
If opinion polls are any guide, many of the people who are willing to give Modi the benefit of the doubt think good governance is what matters the most.
“Well, it’s a credible question to ask if the Gujarat model can be replicated successfully nationwide or not, but before that let’s bear in mind that we at least a have an evidence of a successful model,” Alok Raj, a New Delhi-based management consultant, told Al Jazeera.
Whatever the relative merits of the case for or against electing Modi, the fact remains that the last time Indians gave a majority to a single party was way back in 1984.
Since then the major political parties, notably the Congress and BJP, have heavily relied on the support of smaller allies to form government.
“Modi will enter a completely uncharted territory in the national elections,” Sumit Sharma, a senior business journalist based in Mumbai, told Al Jazeera.
“Even if he becomes the next prime minister of India, it will be interesting to see how he implements his economic agenda while managing the compulsions of the fragile political coalition which he is most likely going to be a part of.”
Playing down expectations of a quick turnaround in India’s economic fortunes under a Modi administration, he says: “Let’s not expect miracles too soon.”
Yet a miracle is what many want as growth stagnates and unemployment rises in a country of more than a billion people.
“Government indecision and rising corruption are the biggest issues before India at the moment and Narendra Modi fares quite well on these two counts,” Anamika Karati, a senior finance professional from Delhi, told Al Jazeera.
“I want him to win.”
Whether Modi can convert the support of voters like Karati into electoral success next year, remains to be seen.
This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.