AHMEDABAD: One of India's most divisive politicians, Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, faces elections this week that are expected to secure him a platform to become a future national leader.
Modi, whose links to some of the India's worst religious violence make him a hate-figure for many Muslims and secularists, has been chief minister of western Gujarat state since 2001.
In a staggered vote starting Thursday and concluding on December 17, he will look to secure his third election victory, running on a platform of fast economic growth, clean governance and rural development.
“Modi's ambitions will definitely grow if he returns to power with a thumping majority which has been predicted by opinion polls,” said Subhash Kashyap, an expert with the Centre for Policy Research think-tank.
“But the final decision will be taken by his party after the state polls,” Kashyap said of Modi, a 62-year-old from humble origins who is one of India's longest-serving regional leaders.
Born in 1950 to a food-stall owner in Gujarat, Modi came through the ranks of a hardline grassroots right-wing Hindu organisation before joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1987.
Though he has never declared his ambition to be prime minister, his desire for the top spot in his party is an open secret and he is widely thought to be angling to lead the BJP into national elections due in 2014.
On the campaign trail, he has consistently targeted the corruption-plagued federal government in New Delhi and the heads of the ruling Congress party, the dynastic leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
A string of interviews with the foreign media has helped raise his profile abroad, while his embrace of Twitter and YouTube has widened his appeal to Gujarat's overwhelmingly young electorate.
In another innovation, he has been addressing crowds using new technology that projects him as a 3D hologram at rallies across the industrialising state, where General Motors, Ford and other foreign groups have invested.
“Winning the Gujarat election is not a challenge for Narendra Modi,” said Ajaykant Patel, a political scientist at Gujarat University.
“His real challenge is to win the confidence of politicians from the entire spectrum to come to New Delhi and project himself as a prime ministerial candidate,” Patel added.
The India Today magazine in an opinion poll in October declared Modi as “invincible” in Gujarat and said 56 percent of the respondents backed him as the BJP's candidate for the top job in the national polls.
But though many profess admiration for his style of leadership, particularly businessmen, his legacy remains stained by Hindu-Muslim riots that erupted shortly after he came to power.
He is blamed by rights groups for turning a blind eye to the violence in February 2002 which saw as many as 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, killed.
Western countries imposed restrictions on him, with Britain only recently lifting a boycott on dealing with the bird-lover who lives alone in his chief minister's residence, where he meditates and does yoga daily.
He denies any wrongdoing in the riots and has never been convicted over the violence, unlike a former minister in his administration who was recently handed a life sentence.
“Gujarat is progressing because we have peace, unity and compassion here,” Modi told AFP in October. “If the poison of religion was present... and we were only catering to one section of society, then my state would not have prospered.”
To have a chance as prime minister, he will have to convince his own party of his merits, and then re-invigorate the lacklustre BJP to give them a chance of returning to power after 10 years in opposition.
The party has been unable to benefit from the corruption and governance problems afflicting the ruling Congress government, and its loyalties are split between older leaders and new regional power centres such as Modi.
Some say Modi is simply too toxic to unite the country despite his popularity in Gujarat and his reputation as a no-nonsense administrator capable of attracting investors and delivering jobs.
“He will never ever live down the 2002 riots because even as he grew in stature in Gujarat the BJP gained no strength in India because moderate Hindus were appalled by what happened,” commentator Paranjoy Guha Thakurta said.