India’s main opposition party named Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate ahead of next year’s general election in a bid to showcase his reformist credentials and broaden its base beyond core Hindu nationalists.
Modi, chief minister of western Gujarat state since 2001, will be prime minister if the Bharatiya Janata Party and its coalition partners form a government after the polls, party President Rajnath Singh said in New Delhi after a meeting of the BJP’s highest decision-making body. The U.S. refused a visa to the 62-year-old over his alleged role in the 2002 riots that killed about 1,000 Muslims.
The opposition will push Modi’s record of delivering higher-than-average growth rates in Gujarat in a bid to unseat Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after India’s $1.8 trillion economy expanded at the slowest pace in a decade and the rupee slumped to a record. The ruling Congress party is likely to attack Modi over his handling of the deadly riots in the home state of peace icon Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
“Even if Modi has strong appeal among the corporate sector and middle class, he doesn’t enjoy that charm among large sections of the population,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent analyst who has covered politics for more than three decades. “His economic reforms in one state are not going to influence the bulk of the electorate.”
Opinion polls suggest a hung parliament once votes are counted. Singh’s Congress party appointed Rahul Gandhi, scion of the country’s foremost political dynasty, to lead its poll charge as it seeks to recover from three years of policy drift, coalition infighting and corruption allegations.
Singh’s ruling coalition may win 136 seats of the total 545 in the lower house of parliament, with Congress getting 119, a drop of 87 seats from the previous poll in 2009, a July survey by the Times Now television channel and C-Voter polling agency found. The opposition alliance could get 156 seats, with the BJP securing 131 or 15 seats more than the last ballot, the survey showed.
Modi has raised his national profile since winning a third term in Gujarat in December. The BJP appointed him to lead its election campaign, and he routinely addresses gatherings of business leaders and students.
“Modi has the ability to galvanize the BJP cadre and attract different sections of voters,” said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst, adding his candidacy will help the BJP win more seats. “He is a very meticulous planner; sets a goal and works for that.”
Modi arouses strong emotions in the nation of 1.2 billion people. To followers, he’s a cult figure who dragged Gujarat from the ashes of the 2002 rioting, wooing businesses and cutting red tape and corruption. To opponents, he’s an autocrat who failed to control the attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs or show enough remorse over the killings.
The 2002 carnage, which has also left Modi barred from entering some European nations, followed the killing of Hindu activists in a train fire, a blaze for which Muslims were later found guilty. Human rights groups accuse Modi of not doing enough to control the subsequent riots and exploiting religious divisions for political gain.
Modi denies any wrongdoing and a Supreme Court-appointed panel investigating one documented incident found no evidence that he took decisions to prevent assistance from reaching those being attacked.
Maya Kodnani, a former Modi aide, was jailed last year for her role in the murder of 97 people in a suburb of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s biggest city.
The fallout of the riots continues to hinder Modi and the BJP outside of the state and the party’s support base. His elevation in the BJP prompted its biggest ally at the time -- which governs a state with a large Muslim minority -- to quit the opposition alliance.
“I have been given a huge responsibility by the party,” Modi said in a press conference in New Delhi yesterday after the announcement. “I assure the party workers that I will ensure BJP’s victory in 2014.”
Modi has been credited with increasing Gujarat’s economic growth by an annual average rate of about 10 percent over the last decade, compared with about 8 percent for the nation. While he raised power generation capacity more than fivefold and won investment with a rapid project-approval process, his success in improving health and education indicators has lagged behind other states.
As a young boy, Modi helped his father sell tea to passengers at a Gujarat railway station before school, Kingshuk Nag wrote in “The NaMo Story -- A Political Life.”
At the age of eight, Modi joined the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteers Corps. The RSS advocates that Hinduism is central to Indian culture and life, and acts as a guide to the BJP.
Modi completed a master’s degree in political science before entering politics in 1987 by joining the BJP, according to his personal website.