BJP Candidate Tries to Leave Religious Politics Behind and Run on Economic Development in Election Starting Monday
Updated April 4, 2014 11:23 p.m. ET
NEW DELHI—The man leading polls to become India's next prime minister may finally be outrunning his past.
When thousands of terrified Muslims fled their homes during religious riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002, the state's Hindu-nationalist chief minister opposed setting up relief camps, saying these would be "child-making factories."
After alluding to polygamy and high birthrates in the Muslim community, Narendra Modi declared: "There is a need to teach a lesson to those people who are expanding their population."
The speech reinforced Mr. Modi's image as a Hindu hard-liner. Three years later, the U.S. denied Mr. Modi a visa, responding to allegations that he hadn't done enough to stop the 2002 rioting, in which mobs killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.
Now, in national elections that start Monday, Mr. Modi has sought to distance himself from religious politics. Facing off against Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of India's powerful Nehru-Gandhi political clan, whose Congress party has governed India since 2004, Mr. Modi has positioned himself as a champion of economic development and no-nonsense government. He cites growth and industrialization under his leadership in Gujarat and says all of India will enjoy the same if he becomes premier.
"I am known to be a Hindu-nationalist leader," Mr. Modi said in one of his first speeches after becoming the prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. But "my real thought is toilets first, temples later."
That message has resonated with voters. Despite Mr. Modi's sectarian baggage, opinion polls show the BJP well ahead of Congress, its main rival. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 63% of respondents want a BJP-led government, while just 19% favor Congress.
Mr. Modi's critics say his hard-line affiliations make him unfit to lead a large, profoundly diverse country such as India. Hindus make up 80% of India's population and Muslims 13%.
Campaigning this week in the technology hub of Gurgaon, on New Delhi's outskirts, Mr. Modi stepped out of a helicopter and greeted thousands of cheering fans. Some wore paper masks bearing his bearded, bespectacled likeness. Others hailed him with a chant used to worship the Hindu god Shiva.
"Electricity in every home, toilets in every home, education for children, hospitals for the elderly. Brothers and sisters, can't we do this in our country?" Mr. Modi asked the rally. "We need to make this happen together."
A supporter uses a 'Modi Fan' to take respite from the heat in Sivasagar, last week. Sipa Press
India's 815 million eligible voters are going to the polls at a time of growing national dissatisfaction. To many, corruption seems to have penetrated public life at all levels. The economy, rocket-powered not long ago, has slowed. The rupee tumbled more than 20% last summer, and inflation is now 8%. Since a fatal gang rape in 2012, India has become known around the world as a dangerous place for women. Indians worry about an assertive China next door, and many feel their country has lost influence on the world stage.
This is an election of "anger with an element of hope," one senior BJP politician, Arun Jaitley, said in the past week.
For India's exasperated middle class, Mr. Modi's brawny style is a direct antidote to a Congress party some perceive as feckless. The BJP is expected to win big among urban professionals who believe Mr. Modi can imbue India with a new self-confidence and ambition that matches their own.
Mr. Modi is also the darling of Indian business. Indian stocks have been hitting highs as investors bet on a Modi victory.
Mr. Modi's tack to the center and the growing likelihood voters will reward him for it are getting Washington's attention, too. In February Nancy Powell, then U.S. ambassador to India, ended a long U.S. diplomatic freeze by meeting with Mr. Modi.
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