NEW DELHI — One of India’s most controversial Hindu nationalist politicians won a third term as chief minister of his state on Thursday, bolstering his chances of leading the country’s main opposition party into national elections scheduled for 2014.
Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 115 out of 182 seats in the Gujarat state assembly, according to Election Commission results, trumping the Congress party, which controls India’s national government.
Analysts say Modi, 62, has emerged as a front-runner to become his party’s prime ministerial candidate in the next election.
“This election has . . . proved wrong the prevalent belief in the country that ‘good economics is bad politics,’ ” Modi said in a victory address, as voters screamed, “Delhi, Delhi” in a reference to what the future might hold. “For me, serving Gujarat is serving India.”
Hailed for his pro-business image and for successfully inviting global corporations such as General Motors and Ford to set up large factories in Gujarat, in western India, Modi has delivered impressive economic growth in the state, averaging about 10 percent a year. He has never faced allegations of corruption, a rarity among Indian politicians.
The beleaguered Congress party-led national coalition government, meanwhile, has been battling corruption allegations and a slowing economy, prompting many analysts to predict that national elections will take place months ahead of schedule.
The BJP has failed to capitalize on the current crisis or project a clear alternative vision. But some party leaders say Modi offers an opportunity to galvanize Hindu voters, whose hard-line elements cheer him as their hero.
“The BJP has now no option but to start projecting Modi nationally. He can pull in the crowds, appeal to the urban middle class, and can also raise funds for the party — he is their best shot,” said Manisha Priyam, the India coordinator for research on state and local elections for the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“Today’s result has also shown for the first time that a politician who has ruled a state like a modern CEO has won by drumbeating economic growth and investment success,” Priyam said. “This is an important shift.”
But Modi is also one of the most contentious figures in modern Indian politics.
He is reviled by many for his alleged role in the mob attacks that left more than 1,000 Muslims dead in Gujarat in 2002. The reprisal violence followed the death of 58 Hindus in a train fire, which Muslims were accused of starting.
International human rights groups have accused Modi of looking the other way as marauding Hindu mobs went on a rampage, and India’s Supreme Court once called Modi’s government “modern-day Neros.”
Seeking to erase his associations with the sectarian carnage, Modi has carefully shaped his public image in recent years to fit with India’s 21st-century economic ambition. His efforts paid off somewhat in October, when Britain reestablished ties with the Gujarat government.
“In the fantasy of urban, middle-class Indians, Modi is India’s answer to China-style economic growth, because he is decisive, authoritarian, [and] delivers economic growth and development,” said Shiv Visvanathan, a government and public policy professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, near New Delhi.
At the same time, some analysts say that Modi’s growing national profile could hurt his party’s effort to appeal to moderates, who cling to the idea of a secular nation and often consider Modi’s politics unpalatable.
“He has signaled that he is ready for India, but is he really India-friendly?” Visvanathan asked. “Can he appeal to the religious minorities, the poor, the landless and the moderate voices in India?”
Some BJP insiders say that Modi will have to change his personality if he wants to carve out a national role. “Modi will need to reinvent his style a little to widen his support, start taking other people along and listening to others,” said a senior leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive.
Party leaders say Modi is likely to travel across India in the next few months to galvanize the party rank-and-file and try to connect with the voters.
Also Thursday, the Congress party won 36 out of 68 seats in voting in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, defeating the ruling BJP state government.