Is Narendra Modi a Step Closer to Being India’s Next Prime Minister?

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Ajit Solanki / AP

Indian state of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi greets his supporters after casting his vote in the second phase of state-assembly elections in Ahmedabad, India, on Dec. 17, 2012

Gujarat’s bookies are probably lying low for the next few days. The good odds they put on a narrow win for Narendra Modi did not pay off today, as the charismatic and divisive Indian politician was re-elected as chief minister of the western Indian state in a decisive victory. The win — Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 115 of 182 of the state assembly’s seats — is a strong stamp of approval for the party and the Hindu nationalist politico himself, who has played a pivotal role in setting Gujarat on a path of enviable growth. It also marks a major defeat for the Congress Party, which came in at a distant second with 61 seats, and raises the stakes in the battle between India’s ruling party and the BJP for hearts and minds in the run-up to national elections scheduled for 2014.

“There was a thinking in our politics that good economics is bad politics,” Modi said in his victory speech on Thursday. “Development won today.” Few figures in Indian politics have the kind of devoted following that Modi, 62, enjoys today. The feverishly loyal supporters who gave their chief minister another run in office this week believe he has turned the state around, creating a rare, business-friendly environment that has brought money, infrastructure and much needed jobs to this important coastal state. (Read a victory blog post from Modi.)

At the same time, few figures have been as polarizing. Controversy has followed Modi since 2002, when, after 58 people were killed in an arson attack on two train carriages carrying Hindu activists, Gujarat erupted in a spasm of brutal anti-Muslim riots. As many as 2,000 Muslims were killed in the violence that followed, and 10 years later, many in India still blame Modi, who was chief minister at that time too, and his colleagues for their alleged complicity in the attacks. Modi has always firmly denied such accusations. When asked about his role in the riots in an interview with TIME earlier this year, he refused to comment on the subject. “Let people say what they want to say. My actions speak.” In October this year, the U.K. government announced that it had instructed its high commissioner in New Delhi to re-engage with the Gujarat state administration. Modi has been denied visas to the U.S. in the past, however, and 25 American lawmakers recently called on President Barack Obama to do so should Modi seek entry to the U.S. again.

That poses a potentially awkward scenario as Modi inches closer to seeking the country’s top job. His election team ran what was surely one of the most ambitious state campaigns that India has seen, employing 3-D holographic technology so he could deliver stump speeches in dozens of locations at once. (The tactic, intended to highlight the state’s technological prowess, drew immediate criticism from Congress, which demanded the Election Commission look into how the gimmick was funded.) The stakes here are high: without this win, Modi risked losing the momentum he will need if he wants — as many think he does — to try to bring his political career to the national stage in 2014.

Modi has never publicly said he wants to be the next Prime Minister of India. But senior BJP leaders have floated his name many times, setting the stage for a possible showdown between Modi and Rahul Gandhi during campaigning next December. Though he was not running for any seat in Gujarat, as Congress’ general secretary, Gandhi has become central to his party’s 2014 election campaign. It is still unclear whether the 42-year-old will take over the reins if a Congress-led government were to be voted into office in 2014. Like Modi, he has never stated that he covets the spot at the top of India’s political scrum. But unlike Modi, many in India speculate that Gandhi doesn’t actually want the job. Doubts about his appetite for the post were recently raised again when, in a recent Cabinet reshuffle, he did not take a ministerial position.

Nevertheless, as India’s two main political parties fought over Gujarat this month, Gandhi led the charge. The politicians exchanged several pointed barbs in the days before the polls. Before a packed rally earlier this month, Gandhi said to a crowd of Congress supporters: “I was told that Gujarat has been shining, all due to the efforts of one man … Do you have electricity? Do you have water? Do the youths here have jobs?” The crowd cried back: “No!”

Derailing Team Modi’s narrative that Gujarat is excelling in development and economic growth had been one of Congress’ key strategies in fighting his re-election. Modi’s highly effective p.r. crew has been peddling the story of Gujarat’s growth for many months, touting its development policies as a model for other Indian states. Their claims are not baseless. As noted in this magazine’s March cover story on Modi:

Today, Gujarat is the only state in India where both big businesses and small farmers can expect an uninterrupted power supply for nearly 24 hours a day, with the premium rates paid by big business used to subsidize rural electrification. In 10 years, Gujarat’s auto industry has grown from one modest plant to an expected capacity of 700,000 cars in 2014, including billion-dollar investments announced last year by Ford and Peugeot.

Those are positive numbers, the likes of which only a few other Indian states can match. But as elections got under way, some questioned whether Gujarat’s growth has translated into the levels of poverty reduction that it should have, drawing attention to the widening rich-poor divide in some parts of the state. For others, the specter of such a polarizing figure leading the nation raises questions much larger than whether trickle-down economics is working in western India. Modi’s critics fret over how a man associated with one of the worst cases of communal violence in India is the right person to move this diverse country forward.

It’s a question that BJP leaders are no doubt thinking hard about as they ruminate who will be the next front man for their party. But millions of Gujaratis have already made up their mind. As one supporter tweeted out on Thursday: “Modi is my PM because he’s growth-focused, decisive, tactful, visionary and good at marketing.” Whether or not it was a typo — Modi was just re-elected CM of Gujarat, not PM of India — is unclear, but it’s probably not an error that anyone on his celebrating team would try to correct anytime soon.