Controversial opposition politician Narendra Modi’s hopes of becoming India’s next premier could get a big boost this weekend when his party chooses its frontman for next year’s general elections.
Modi, chief minister of the thriving western state of Gujarat for more than a decade, is widely expected to be named head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election panel at a two-day meeting that began Saturday in the coastal state of Goa.
The post is seen as a stepping stone to Modi being named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, despite resistance from some colleagues who see him as an electorally divisive figure for failing to stop deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002, while other senior party leaders would like the job themselves.
Lal Krishna Advani, the 85-year-old party patriarch who mentored Modi, is now opposed to his elevation due to what some party officials say is the Gujarat politician’s arrogant style and fears that he could alienate Muslim voters.
Party officials said Advani called in “sick” and skipped a crucial meeting on Friday — the first time in recent memory he has missed a national executive meeting, according to BJP officials.
But observers say Advani might relent and attend the last day of the conference to symbolically validate Modi’s new expected role in a show of party unity.
A senior party leader, Uma Bharti, who has voiced reluctance about naming Modi as candidate for prime minister, did not attend the meeting of some 300 party members while former BJP defence minister Jaswant Singh was another no-show.
Indian newspapers quipped Saturday that the absent BJP leaders were suffering from “Namonia” — a reference to Modi’s nickname “Namo”.
Modi, whose political mantra is small government and strong governance, flashed the “V” for victory sign as he arrived at the meeting, seemly untroubled by the discord.
The Hindustan Times in an article titled “Goa First Steps in Modi’s March to Delhi” said the right-wing politician was gaining ground.
“The scales are tipping in favour of a clear picture that Narendra Modi will be the BJP’s face” in the run-up to polls, the mass-circulation English daily said.
The party is expected to save its big announcements for Sunday.
If Modi is made head of the party’s election campaign, he will be expected to canvass across the country and forge strategies to attack the left-leaning ruling Congress party.
The exercise would be seen as a key test of his abilities to rally the nation behind him as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister.
But ghosts of anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat just over a decade ago could still thwart his ambitions.
As many as 2,000 people — mainly Muslims — were killed during the month-long unrest, according to rights groups.
One of Modi’s ex-ministers was jailed for life for taking part in instigating the killings but several probes have cleared the politician of personal responsibility.
Senior BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi insisted Modi, 62, had shown his leadership qualities and that he “is a popular leader of the country”.
Some observers expect a face-off between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, 42, a lacklustre political performer who is the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which is at the helm of the Congress party.
Congress, hoping for a third straight win, has painted Modi as a communally divisive figure as it seeks to retain the important Muslim vote in the elections that must be held by May 2014.
Analysts said refraining from projecting Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate could be a political ploy by the BJP to protect the politician in the event of electoral defeat.
“If the BJP wins, then he is the star and if the party loses, he can safely go back to Gujarat,” said Sanjay Kumar, a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, an independent think-tank in New Delhi.