Narendra Modi is on the fast track to becoming India’s next prime minister, but his checkered history could still come back to bite him, whether in the lead-up to voting in spring 2014 or when he tries to advance an agenda through parliament. Once thought to be doomed by rumors about his role in encouraging (or overlooking) deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots in an effort to win votes, the seasoned chief minister of Gujarat has mostly succeeded in rebranding himself as a moderate Hindu nationalist who might breathe life into an ailing economy. He offers a sharp contrast with the secular Congress Party and its incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the first non-Hindu to hold the office, his administration mired by inflation and anxiety about low growth. Combining cultural conservatism and a pro-business centrism that has won a fervent following, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lacks consistent strength nationwide, drawing most of its votes in from the urban and middle-class north and barely competing in the south. Despite being favored in early opinion polls, there’s still real uncertainty surrounding how Modi will withstand the scrutiny of a national campaign, much less how he might govern if given the opportunity.
Without question, Modi’s ability to reshape life in Gujarat since ascending to power in 2001 has been impressive, as has his seemingly teflon-coated political identity. The 2002 riots were followed by a local election that Modi’s BJP dominated, propelling him to a first full term as chief minister, one he used to undertake a massive economic development project — dubbed “Vibrant Gujarat” — which in addition to providing a policy portfolio also helped him accumulate an extensive network of business and financial contacts that are coming in handy as he sells himself to the rest of India. It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what Modi’s backers have in mind for him should he win national office, much less how he will come down on foreign policy issues (such as relations with Pakistan) on which he has not been required to formally weigh in as chief minister. Suffice it to say the prospect of a rapprochement with recently-elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, apparently intent on boosting ties with New Delhi, would rest on the flexibility of Modi’s ideology.
Modi’s charisma among the Hindu faithful will not be enough to push him over the top in and of itself, as months of harsh attack ads and micro-targeted campaign ads should be expected to take a toll. His opponents will try to ensure Muslims as well as the non-Hindu population at large become aware of the chief minister’s treatment of local minorities, and rivals within the BJP — such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a recent winner of re-election as chief minister of the central state of Madhya Pradesh — hope to push him aside in the interest of protecting the party’s image. Indeed, forming a coalition with fringe parties that rely on minority (including Muslim) support will be no easy task if, as expected, the BJP does not secure a governing majority but merely a plurality in the lower house of parliament. But Modi likely has the money and apparatus to clear the plausibility threshold, and his candidacy speaks to a very real hunger for change. If the savvy regional pol can avoid a total implosion, he’s a safe bet to take the helm — and an even safer one to stir up more controversy throughout the swaths of southern and rural India that will have voted resoundingly against him.