But Modi’s political journey from Gujarat to New Delhi faces hurdles from within his Bharatiya Janata Party 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 riots that left hundreds of Muslims dead in Gujarat 11 years ago could frighten away smaller parties that are key to stitching 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 BJP’s rank and file. Indian media have joined in, steadily recasting the man once deemed the “Hero of Hate” as the “Modernizer.”
But the BJP leadership appears hesitant 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 groundswell of support for Modi was evident this month at a party meeting in New Delhi. Every time his name was mentioned, thousands of party members roared and
cheered. Even as the BJP tried to showcase the achievements of other prominent figures, 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 among 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.”
Malik 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, which had previously backed the party.