Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Goa as a city. It is a state. This version has been corrected.
NEW DELHI — India’s Hindu nationalist opposition 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 Bharatiya Janata Party’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 western coastal city of Panaji in 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 Suzuki, which 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.
But the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which had pressed the government against issuing Modi a visa in 2005, reiterated its concerns in a report last month.
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. In the past two decades, no single party has been able to rule India on its own, and coalitions are the order of the day.
“Modi is a solution for the BJP because he will maximize its votes, but he also represents a problem for the party,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of “Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.”
“He has to now work with several senior leaders and rivals within the BJP, but also begin the process of moderation to appeal to allies outside the BJP for support,” Mukhopadhyay said. “How he moderates and accommodates is yet to be seen. He cannot run the campaign the way he runs his Gujarat government, in an autocratic style.”
Mukhopadhyay added that the party’s campaign is likely to be “pro-economic growth, corporate-friendly and aggressive on foreign policy.”
In contrast, the advertising campaign of the ruling Congress party emphasizes welfare policies and the right of India’s poor to share in the country’s economic growth. The nine-year-old coalition government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is besieged with allegations of widespread corruption and weak leadership, the lowest economic growth in a decade, and rising prices.
“It is our responsibility to save this country from such a government. We cannot leave India helpless and must restore the faith of a billion citizens,” Modi said in a stump speech in Goa.
This year, the young scion of the political dynasty that controls the Congress party, 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, was named vice president and head of its campaign, in an effort to re-brand the 127-year-old party.
India’s news media have framed the elections as a battle between Gandhi and Modi. But both parties have stopped short of publicly declaring the two as their prime ministerial candidates.
An opinion poll last month by Nielsen and ABP News predicted that Singh’s coalition would face a crushing defeat if elections were held now but added that the BJP-led coalition would not get the required votes either.
Modi’s elevation Sunday was not without dissent. Many senior leaders of the faction-ridden party, including its 85-year-old patriarch, L.K. Advani, skipped the meeting in Goa. Modi’s advocates had spent the past two days trying to coax Advani to attend.