India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on Friday evening put months of conjecture to rest and announced Narendra Modi, chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat and a hugely controversial and divisive figure in Indian politics, as their prime ministerial candidate for the upcoming general elections in March next year.
Party president Rajnath Singh, a staunch Modi supporter, said that he was confident that the BJP would come back to power in 2014 under Modi’s leadership. “I have been given a huge responsibility by the party,” Modi said in a short speech after the announcement. “I assure party workers that I will assure BJP’s victory in the 2014.”
Modi’s elevation as the party’s prime ministerial candidate had created deep slits within the party with stalwart leaders like L.K. Advani — who skipped the party meet on Friday — refusing to support the decision.
Other prominent leaders of the party, like Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in the lower house of the Indian parliament, who was herself a strong prime ministerial contender, have also been opposed to Modi’s selection but were brought around to support the decision.
Despite his popularity as Gujarat’s chief minister — he is serving his fourth term at present — and among the young rank-and-file of the BJP, who broke out into loud celebrations outside the BJP headquarters in Delhi as the announcement was made, Modi has remained a polarizing figure since 2002, when he failed to prevent communal riots in Gujarat. Hundreds of Muslims were killed, allegedly under his watch. He has consistently refused to apologize for the riots and in fact in July this year, created a furor when in an interview to Reuters he likened the legacy of that violence to a puppy being run over, although he later said that he had been misinterpreted.
Although the formal announcement was made only on Friday, for months there have been electoral face-offs between Modi and the ruling Congress party’s national vice president and unofficial prime ministerial candidate for 2014, Rahul Gandhi. All eyes will now be on the Congress party, to formally announce Gandhi, a scion of India’s most prominent political family, as their choice for PM next year.