AHMEDABAD, India -- India's most important election in a generation began in earnest this month the same way consequential elections nearly always start here -- with a proclamation and a deadly riot.
In New Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party announced last week that it had chosen Narendra Modi, one of the most divisive politicians in India's history, as its candidate for prime minister in next spring's national elections. Mr. Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, is an unapologetic Hindu chauvinist who has been accused of mass murder.
Mr. Modi has tempered his anti-Muslim tirades and replaced them with a message of development based on a record in Gujarat that even critics acknowledge is impressive. But his critics say he and his Hindu nationalist party have benefited in the past from violence between Hindus and Muslims, using such incidents to paper over Hindus' historic differences over caste and persuade them to vote as a bloc along religious lines.
Not coincidentally, mass rioting broke out last week in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically important state, after a legislator from Mr. Modi's party circulated a fake video of two Hindus being lynched by a Muslim mob. Forty-four people were killed and 42,000 were displaced as entire villages were sacked.
Riyazat Ali of Bawari said he watched from a hidden room as a Hindu mob stormed his house, hacked his brother to death and shot and killed his 18-year-old niece.
"I saw everything," said Mr. Ali, who has been living in a refugee camp in Kandhla for the past week with his 11 children. "It was raining bullets inside the house."
India may be the world's most populous democracy, but election campaigns here are often fueled by hate and soaked in blood. By choosing Mr. Modi, a fiery orator who once peppered his speeches with anti-Muslim slurs, the Bharatiya Janata Party has raised the prospect that this election could be the deadliest in decades.
Hindus make up roughly 80 percent of India's population and Muslims 13 percent, a share about equal to that of blacks in the United States. Sushil Kumar Shinde, India's minister of Home Affairs, said that there had already been 451 cases of sectarian violence this year, surpassing last year's total of 410. He warned that violence was likely to intensify as national elections approached.
Among the country's vast urban youth, Mr. Modi has rock-star appeal. Half of India's population is under 25, and most have seen little more from their leaders than the soporific near-whispers of octogenarians like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
By contrast, Mr. Modi is a charismatic preacher of a resurgent India, a vision that millions mired in a sputtering economy find intoxicating. To many Hindus, he is a revelation.
To many Muslims, though, he is an abomination. In 2002, less than a year after he was appointed the state's chief minister, riots swept Gujarat and killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Mothers were skewered, children set afire and fathers hacked to pieces.
Some witnesses claimed that Mr. Modi encouraged the violence, which Mr. Modi has denied. He has never been charged, but close associates of his were convicted of inciting a riot.
"They want to create a Hindu voting bloc that transcends caste, and they'll use hate to do it," said Sumant Banerjee, a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla.
The riots only bolstered Mr. Modi's political standing. Months later, having consolidated the Hindu vote, he led his party to a resounding victory in state elections. Since then he has dominated Gujarat's politics, the state's largest city, Ahmedabad, has remained deeply segregated and most of India's Muslims hate him.
Mr. Modi, 63, refused repeated requests over months for an interview (he rarely speaks to Western news organizations). Jay Narayan Vyas, a senior leader of Mr. Modi's opposition party, said that Mr. Modi was not to blame for the 2002 riots and that his party did not demonize Muslims.
"The B.J.P. philosophy is justice to all but appeasement to none," he said.
Mr. Vyas said that as prime minister, Mr. Modi would bring wealth to India and tame its political chaos. "We need a leader who is a strong leader and doesn't allow democracy to be a passport to misbehave," Mr. Vyas said.
Mr. Modi will face off against the Indian Congress Party, which has yet to name its candidate for prime minister. Mr. Singh is widely thought to be too old, while Sonia Gandhi, the party's president, is said to be ill. It is still not clear whether Rahul Gandhi, Mrs. Gandhi's son, is interested in seeking the job.
As a child, Mr. Modi worked in his father's tea shop, and as a young man chose politics over a life of religious devotion. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful, right-wing Hindu organization associated with the B.J.P. that espouses a muscular religious nationalism. Indeed, a former member of the R.S.S. assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi, the nation's founding father, in 1948.
In a country where family ties are paramount, Mr. Modi has remained single and is rarely seen, even with close relatives. But his loner status has endeared him to many, as it suggests that he has few reasons to solicit bribes, routine in Indian politics.
While never apologizing for the 2002 riots, Mr. Modi has shifted his focus recently to development, and he is now the darling of India's business elite, who hail him for his ability to cut through the country's infamous bureaucracy and create jobs.
"The reason why Modi needs a chance to lead is that he is the first politician since Nehru who has articulated a clear economic vision," said Tavleen Singh, a prominent author and political commentator who was referring to Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and who argued that hate crimes were so routinely incited by Indian leaders that no major party or politician was innocent.
Car plants now crowd the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Top industrialists say they have located plants in Gujarat because Mr. Modi got them land, steady electricity and a pliant work force, a rare combination in much of India. Although Gujarat has just 5 percent of India's population, it accounts for 16 percent of its industrial production and 22 percent of its exports.
A drive through Mr. Modi's constituency of Maninagar in this western city demonstrates both the hopes and fears swirling around him. The neighborhood is a mostly middle-class enclave of tidy homes and handsome apartment buildings with well-paved streets, a functional sewer system and constant electricity.
In almost any advanced country, Maninagar would be unremarkable. But in a country where roads are often atrocious, more than half of the population has no access to toilets and electricity is fitful at best, Maninagar is almost an idyll. Even the richest neighborhoods in New Delhi and Mumbai lack such services.
Drive past M.S. Car Repair Shop, however, and this scene turns decidedly darker. Here, the roads are potholed and crumbling, the houses are tin-roofed shacks, trash is everywhere and the stink of sewage is pervasive. The reason for the difference in this small part of Maninagar? Religion, say its residents.
"Only Muslims live here, and you can see for yourself that it's not nearly as nice," said Mohammad Yusuf while repairing a punctured inner-tube on an ancient bicycle. "It should be a lot better, but it's not."
A similar partition is now taking place in the villages around Muzaffarnagar, where riots erupted last week. Zareen Khatun, whose son found his father's mutilated corpse in a stack of bodies at a hospital, said that she would not even speak the name of her former town again.
"We'll never go back there," she said firmly.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from Ahmedabad, and Nida Najar from Muzaffarnagar, India.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.