NEW DELHI – If Indians were to vote against corruption, a slowing economy and weak leadership in the 2014 national elections — all that urban middle-class population is roiled by — controversial Hindu nationalist politician Narendra Modi could win the office of prime minister hands down.
He has won three back-to-back elections as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, delivered impressive economic growth, boosted jobs and runs what is considered a squeaky-clean administration in a country where bribe-taking is a byword for power.
But Modi’s political journey from Gujarat to New Delhi faces hurdles from within his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and from its allies.
For the party, the quandary couldn’t be deeper — Modi is its most popular, vote-getting face, but his image is hardly coalition-friendly. The stigma of his alleged complicity in bloody riots that left hundreds of Muslims dead in Gujarat 11 years ago could frighten away smaller parties key to stitching up a national coalition government. Many Indians vote along caste, religious and regional lines but ignore corruption, giving small regional parties powerful leverage.
“If the BJP projects him, we will leave the coalition in no time,” said Sabir Ali, spokesman for the Janata Dal United Party, a tiny but important ally that governs the eastern state of Bihar. “The prevailing sentiment is that Modi is a killer of Muslims.”
Even so, since his third election victory in Gujarat in December, the clamor for Modi has grown among the party’s rank and file. Indian media have joined in, steadily dropping Modi’s former image as the “Hero of Hate” to recast him as the “Modernizer.”
But the BJP leadership appears to be delaying in putting him forward as the party’s candidate for prime minister. In the absence of official party rallies, Modi, apparently unwilling to wait for a green light, has begun an independent speaking tour of sorts.
The pro-Modi groundswell peaked this month at a party meeting in New Delhi. Every time Modi’s name was mentioned, thousands of party members roared and cheered. Even as the party tried to showcase the achievements of other prominent members, it was clear who the party members wanted, one senior member said.
“A pan-India momentum is building around Modi. It would be unfair and churlish not to recognize that,” said political commentator Ashok Malik, referring to Modi’s popularity with the urban middle class. “Even those who are not in his favor in the party grudgingly accept that Modi is the best card they can play.”
He said polls showing rising ratings for Modi reflect Indians’ disappointment with the rule of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a reticent economist who has failed to check runaway corruption, spiraling inflation and plummeting economic growth.
“There is a sense of helplessness among Indians today — corruption, economy, leadership vacuum,” said BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman. “Modi is able to effectively touch this nerve and ask, ‘Can India afford to feel this helpless?’ “
The BJP led a coalition government from 1999 to 2004, when it lost power amid waning support from the poorer classes that had previously backed it.
“We must demonstrate once again that we are a winnable party, and Modi can take us closer to that goal than any other leader today,” a party member who was not authorized to speak publicly on internal matters said.
But even members of allied parties who admire Modi’s rule in Gujarat worry that he will cost them votes among Muslims.
“The country needs a dynamic, growth-oriented, decisive leader, but Modi also carries a stigma,” said Nama Nageswara Rao, a lawmaker with the Telugu Desam Party in southern India. “His silence on the issue of riots does not inspire confidence.”
Widespread doubts aside, Modi has already begun to construct a national image for himself.
He rarely speaks publicly in the Gujarati language, choosing Hindi for larger audiences. He has stopped mentioning Gujarat’s population of 60 million in every speech, focusing instead on the aspirations of India’s 1.2 billion people. He compares the brimming surplus in his state’s coffers with India’s bloating fiscal deficit.
In his stump speeches, Modi attacks Singh’s government for excessive “dole distribution” and blames Singh for drowning the economy, which he says has led the world to “put a question mark on India.” He calls the ruling Congress party a termite eating away at the nation.
But when it comes to the 2002 riots, Modi is silent. Media interviews are granted on the condition that no riot-related questions are asked. Other times, Modi, who has never been convicted of a crime in connection with the killings, directs reporters to read the court records.
When asked about his desire to be prime minister, he ducks.
“I have a mantra in my life that I share with others: ‘Don’t dream of becoming, dream of doing something,’ ” Modi said at a recent event.
While the Congress party has yet to launch a campaign against him, analysts say Modi would drive the votes of religious minorities back to the Congress fold, although he might cost the party some urban middle-class voters.
In 2002, Modi told the Gujarat legislative assembly that the “riots are a stigma on humanity and do not help anyone to hold his head high.”
His critics say that is not enough.
In an opinion piece published last week, economist and columnist Mihir Sharma wrote that many Indians are hoping Modi will express regret “so they can vote for him with a clean conscience.”