Correction: An earlier version of this article said incorrecly that India's Supreme Court ruled that there was no evidence to charge Narendra Modi with a crime in riots in 2002. The finding was by a Supreme Court-appointed panel. The story has been corrected.

As priests chanted and smeared vermilion on Narendra Modi’s forehead, the opposition leader prayed that India would make him its next prime minister.

Modi came to this Hindu holy city late last year to worship at a site that has been contested by Hindus and Muslims for centuries. Just yards from where he stood, a two-story wall of metal bars separated the historic temple from a mosque.

Modi has been a polarizing figure in India for years. Now his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has surged in the polls as a discontented electorate has embraced his message of economic growth and corruption-free government. Voters have begun to cast their ballots in national elections, which will continue in stages until May 12.

But many Indians, particularly the estimated 14 percent who are Muslim, are deeply suspicious of Modi because of riots in his home state of Gujarat just over a decade ago, in which Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 people.

Critics charge that Modi, a Hindu nationalist and the state’s political leader, did little to stop the carnage.

Muslims fear that if Modi becomes prime minister, he will drive a wedge as steely as the barrier in Varanasi between religious groups in India, a predominantly Hindu but officially secular democracy.

Abdul Matin, a Muslim who owns a textile business, said he worries that Modi wants a government that will promote Hindu ideology. “He doesn’t believe in a secular state,” Matin said.

On a recent broiling day, mosquitoes were swarming around the college students and tourists on Varanasi’s famous “ghats” — stone steps that lead to the Ganges. The river is considered sacred by Hindus, and thousands of pilgrims come for a ritual dip each year. Smoke rose from funeral pyres along the river as bodies of Hindus were cremated.

Analysts say Modi has made a quiet yet powerful statement to his Hindu supporters by choosing to run for Parliament from Varanasi, an ancient city in northeastern India that is the center of the Hindu faith. In India, there is no residency requirement for running for office.

“I think he is trying to play the religious card — what else can you say?” said Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, a professor, clean-water activist and head of a Hindu temple.

But for Mishra, this election isn’t about religion; it’s about making India more livable.

He said he was impressed when Modi made the dirty Ganges the centerpiece of a recent speech. Mishra bathes in the river each morning, even though he knows that two-thirds of the city’s sewage flows freely into its water.

Like many Hindus, Mishra supports Modi because of his record in Gujarat, where he has managed, over four terms in office, to improve the electrical grid, pave roads and attract foreign companies such as Ford and General Motors.

“This is good for Banaras,” Mishra said, using the British-era name for this city.

After riots, criticism

Modi, 63, was born into modest circumstances, the son of a tea-seller. As a young man, he joined a wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization dedicated to transforming India into a Hindu state. He became one of the movement’s full-time volunteers, called pracharaks, who live ascetic lives, eschewing meat and alcohol and rising early each morning to do yoga and chant nationalistic slogans.

Modi then worked for the BJP, a political party closely associated with the movement, before he was appointed chief minister, akin to a governor, of his home state in 2001. He had been in the job only a few months when a train carrying Hindu pilgrims from another contested temple-mosque site stopped at a station in Gujarat. The pilgrims clashed with Muslims at the station. In a subsequent fire on the train that Muslims were suspected of starting, 59 people were killed.

In the ensuing days, thousands of angry Hindus set upon the state’s Muslim communities, clubbing men, raping women and burning families to death in their homes.

Modi has been dogged for years by allegations that he did nothing to compel his state’s security forces to quell the violence.

In 2005, the United States denied Modi a visa under a provision that makes any government official responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible. In recent weeks, U.S. relations with Modi have apparently improved, with the opposition leader meeting with Nancy Powell, the American ambassador to India, who resigned last month.

A Supreme Court-appointed panel eventually ruled that there was no evidence to charge Modi with a crime in the 2002 riots, although that ruling is being challenged by the widow of a victim. Modi says he did nothing wrong. He did, however, write a lengthy blog post in December saying that he had been “shaken to the core” by the violence.

Modi has assiduously avoided the subject on the campaign trail, as well as any obvious Hindu nationalist rhetoric — although the BJP’s platform includes a plank protecting cows, considered holy by Hindus.

Muslims’ plight

Muslims have struggled with poverty, illiteracy and discrimination since modern India was formed in 1947, with Pakistan breaking off as a separate Islamic country. In the weeks that followed partition, millions of people were displaced and more than 500,000 were killed in riots. Since then, violence between Hindus and Muslims has flared with regularity. An estimated 8,000 Muslims are still languishing in refugee camps after religion-based riots in this region last fall that left 59 dead, activists say.

More than half a million weavers lived in the Muslim neighborhoods of Varanasi just a decade ago, creating elaborate brocades and silks used in wedding saris. But competition from China has forced half of them to leave their jobs and become rickshaw drivers, vegetable sellers or laborers. Others have resorted to purchasing automated power looms, and the clacking fills the air in the ancient lanes.

The weavers struggle to get by on as little as $1 a day.

A 2006 government panel explored the plight of Muslims in India and issued wide-ranging recommendations to help them, such as creating an equal-
opportunity commission, providing financial help for the self-
employed and making sure Muslim children were enrolled in government-run schools. But few of the recommendations have been carried out, according to Abusaleh Shariff, the economist who wrote the report. He is now executive director of the U.S.-
India Policy Institute in Washington.

“In practically all indicators, the Muslim community in India — in economic, social and political standing — are worse off than the average population,” Shariff said. For example, the literacy rate among Muslims is 55 percent, far below that of the rest of the country, he said.

One weaver, Azizur Rahman, said he hoped that Modi would bring economic opportunity to Varanasi but said he was still troubled by the 2002 violence in Gujarat.

“If Modi apologizes, I would vote for him,” he said. “It’s written in our religion. We must forgive anybody who begs for forgiveness.”

In Varanasi, Modi will battle Arvind Kejriwal, the anti-
corruption leader from the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, Party. Indian politicians can run for office from multiple places, so Modi will also be contesting a Parliament seat from his home state.

A peaceful city, mostly

For the most part, Muslims and Hindus have lived together peacefully for generations in Varanasi, according to Mufti Abdul Batin Nomani, the head of the Gyanvapi mosque, the white-domed edifice that sits on the other side of the barrier from the city’s best-known temple.

But there have been bouts of violence. The worst occurred in 1992, when the city was swept up in a wave of bloodshed after Hindus tore down a mosque in another area of the state. More than 1,000 people died in clashes around India in that turmoil. In 2006, two dozen people were killed in twin bomb blasts in Varanasi thought to be carried out by Muslim extremists.

Nomani used the Hindi words for the weaving terms “warp” and “weft” to describe the closeness of Muslims and Hindus in the city.

Still, he said, most Muslims will refuse to vote for Modi. Why?

“In a word: Gujarat,” Nomani said, speaking of the riots. “The community will never vote for Modi. If there is an election issue, it is to defeat Modi.

“We haven’t decided who to vote for, but it will be against him.”

Jalees Andrabi contributed to this report.