Polarizing Nationalist to Lead Opposition in Indian Elections

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AHMEDABAD, India -- India's leading opposition party on Friday officially anointed a prominent Hindu nationalist, considered one of the most divisive politicians in Indian history, as its candidate for prime minister in next year's national elections.

The politician, Narendra Modi, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, became the Bharatiya Janata Party's choice to lead it against the Indian Congress Party and its governing United Progressive Alliance, which is now led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the party president, Sonia Gandhi, scion of India's first family of politics.

Mr. Modi sits astride deep fissures in India's polyglot society, with many ethnic fault lines that sometimes explode into violence. He is widely despised by Muslims here for the role he played in the 2002 Gujarat riots, when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in brutal attacks that led babies to be impaled and women to be thrown alive onto burning pyres.

But in the 11 years since, Mr. Modi has sought to recast himself as a development expert who is able to cut through India's infamous layers of bureaucracy and create jobs and wealth.

In a society that values family ties above all, he is a single man without children, which makes him seem incorruptible to many. And as the governing alliance is increasingly consumed by corruption scandals and a worrisome economic slide, Mr. Modi's qualities as leader of an economically vibrant state have endeared him to the country's aspiring and largely urban middle class.

Whether this middle-class embrace is enough to propel him to national leadership is unclear. India's electorate is still overwhelmingly poor and rural, and the Congress Party has long courted such voters with welfare programs like guaranteed jobs and subsidized food. India's minorities, including Muslims and Christians, make up nearly 20 percent of the country's population and are likely to vote overwhelmingly against Mr. Modi – a challenging hurdle to overcome.

This challenge is one reason that leading members of the Bharatiya Janata Party have resisted for months naming Mr. Modi as its official candidate for prime minister, and one top leader continued that resistance Friday.

But Mr. Modi's fiery oratory and unusually combative campaign style have long resonated with his party's most enthusiastic supporters, who have become increasingly insistent that he be the party's candidate.

"There is no other leader in the B.J.P. who creates anything like the enthusiasm that Modi does," said Pralay Kanungo, a professor at the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Mr. Modi, who turns 63 on Tuesday, is almost a generation younger than the founding members of his party. And some of his views, including an embrace of foreign investment, contrast with a traditional economic nativism that runs deeply through his party. How those divergent views may be reconciled remains to be seen.

Mr. Modi and his party advocate a tougher policy against Pakistan, India's longtime rival and occasional wartime enemy.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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