New Delhi: The polarizing leader of the western state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, inched closer on Thursday to becoming the leading political challenger to India's dominant Gandhi family by winning a resounding re-election as chief minister.
"My biggest dream is to serve my masses, my people," Modi said in a speech before a cheering throng that eventually began to shout "Delhi, Delhi, Delhi," and then amended that to "P.M., P.M., P.M.," signaling a hope that he wins the post of prime minister in national elections scheduled for 2014.
Modi had campaigned in the Gujarati language, but he gave his widely televised victory speech in Hindi - a clear sign that his intended audience extended well beyond his 60 million constituents. His message in the speech, as it has been throughout his campaign, was that he has brought wealth to Gujarat, which lies on the coast of the Arabian Sea, by encouraging economic development. His party won 115 seats in the state legislature. Although a decline of two seats, it is nonetheless a comfortable majority in a house of 182 seats.
Modi is a prominent politician in the Bharatiya Janata Party, which for years tried to win elections by uniting the country's Hindu majority - in part by demonizing its Muslim minority. Indeed, shortly after Modi came to power a decade ago, riots convulsed Gujarat and cost the lives of about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Modi has been accused of not doing enough to stop the riots and of possibly of encouraging them, making him one of the most divisive figures in Indian politics.
He has since sought to broaden his national appeal by softening his overt Hindu nationalism and instead claiming the mantle of good governance and economic growth. In a country where new corruption scandals seem to emerge every month and economic growth has slowed, that message may have broad resonance.
But whether minorities and moderate Hindus in the rest of India will forgive or forget the government failures during the 2002 riots is very much of an open question.
Indeed, some leading members of the Bharatiya Janata Party have resisted Modi's rising prominence because they fear that he will cost the party votes among religious minorities.
Nitish Kumar, the powerful chief minister of Bihar in the northeast, has promised to withdraw his support for the Bharatiya Janata Party if it selects Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for 2014. That would reduce the party's chances of gaining a majority in the national Parliament, but whether Kumar would follow through on his threat is uncertain.
Modi's role in the 2002 riots has long been a concern for governments in the West. The United States refuses to provide Modi with a visa.
But as he grows into a national political figure, more Western countries may rethink their refusal to talk with him in an official capacity. In October, Britain ended a 10-year diplomatic boycott of Modi when its high commissioner met with him for 50 minutes.
India's religious, caste and regional differences have increasingly splintered the country's politics. Since Hindus represent 80 percent of the electorate, they could dominate national politics if they managed to overcome the caste differences that divide them. But caste has long been the dominant nexus of Indian politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party has led the national government for only one period, from 1998 to 2004.
Leaders of the party said that Modi had solidified his place as one of India's most important politicians, although top party officials refused to speculate on whether he would be its candidate for prime minister in 2014.
"This shows the people's confidence and trust in the BJP and Narendra Modi's leadership," said Dhansukh Bhanderi, a top party official.
Modi's opponents played down the importance of his victory. Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's finance minister and a leader of the governing Indian National Congress Party, said in a televised interview that he thought it had done well on Thursday because Modi had not managed to expand his political dominance in Gujarat.
In a related political development, it was announced Thursday that the Congress Party had defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party in state assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, a hilly state in the Himalayas. The victory was an important balm to the Congress Party, which has been buffeted in recent years by corruption allegations and the rise of regional parties.
The election in Himachal Pradesh was between two political leaders who have traded control over the state between them for decades. Virbhadra Singh, 78, of the Congress Party, is now expected to become the state's chief minister, a post he has already held four times. Prem Kumar Dhumal, 68, will resign after having served two nonconsecutive terms as chief minister.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service