NEW DELHI – India’s Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party on Sunday named controversial and polarizing leader Narendra Modi to head its campaign for the 2014 national elections, signaling that the pro-business politician may be the party’s preferred candidate to lead the country if it wins.
The appointment of Modi, who is the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, is widely viewed by political observers not only as an acknowledgment of his rising popularity among upwardly mobile, urban middle-class Indians, but also as a reminder of the BJP’s reliance on leaders who boost its core Hindu ideology.
“The BJP takes the 2014 elections as a challenge that we have resolved to win,” Rajnath Singh, president of the party, said Sunday in the city of Panaji, in western Goa state. “The entire party has faith in Modi.”
Modi’s elevation brings him closer to the national role that he has fashioned for himself over the past decade, but it may pose a diplomatic quandary in Washington, which refused to grant him a visa in 2005 because of concerns about his alleged complicity in abetting religious riots in 2002.
Some of the BJP’s allies have openly criticized Modi for his refusal to apologize for the riots. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Human rights groups also have accused Modi of not doing enough to stop mobs from targeting Muslims in reprisal attacks after 58 Hindu pilgrims and activists died in a 2002 train fire that Muslims were suspected of starting. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the violence.
But Modi’s image has undergone a makeover in the past decade, from being labeled a “hero of hatred” in the Indian news media to being hailed as a pro-business, tough administrator who runs a largely corruption-free government. Under his rule, Gujarat has attracted such foreign corporations as Ford, General Motors and Japanese carmaker Suzuki, who have set up factories in the state.
The new image has helped Modi gain diplomatic acceptance from Britain and other European Union nations in recent months.
Elevating Modi to the top campaign position is likely to boost the BJP’s chances in the elections, but analysts say that his polarizing politics will also weaken the party’s ability to attract support from smaller, moderate parties in its quest to build a coalition government.