Indians vote on key election day

Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, March 26, 2014 Narendra Modi is seen as a dynamic and efficient leader

Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the 2014 general elections, is seen as India's most divisive politician - loved and loathed in equal measure.

Mr Modi, who has been chief minister of the western state of Gujarat since 2001, is seen as a dynamic and efficient leader who has made his state an economic powerhouse.

But he also is accused of doing little to stop the 2002 religious riots when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed - allegations he has consistently denied.

In the run up to the April-May polls, Mr Modi's face is plastered on hoardings almost all over the country.

At his election rallies, hundreds turn up wearing his face masks and more than 1,000 tea stalls across India are offering the refreshing brew in paper cups with Mr Mod's pictures on them.

When he was named as the head of the BJP's campaign committee in June, Janata Dal United (JD-U), a key ally of the BJP-led NDA, left the alliance, fearing that it would lose the support of Muslims in the state of Bihar, where it ran a coalition government.

Mr Modi became an international pariah after the riots - the US denied him visas and the UK cut off all ties with him. But a decade later, the controversial politician has been reintegrated into the political mainstream.

Last year, US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell met Mr Modi to discuss the US-India relationship, regional security issues, human rights, and American trade and investment in India.

And in October 2012, UK's high commissioner in India met Mr Modi and invited him to address MPs in the House of Commons. Tory and Labour MPs defended their decision to invite Mr Modi to speak, saying his voice needed to be heard.

A brilliant speaker, the Hindu hardline party's poster boy is often called the BJP's brightest star, and his supporters began a spirited "Modi-for-PM" campaign much before the party overcame some stiff internal differences to anoint him the candidate.

Many Indians, however, say they cannot accept Mr Modi as prime minister because of his alleged role in the riots.

Although he has escaped censure in the Gujarat riots so far, his close aide, Maya Kodnani, was convicted and sent to jail for 28 years.

Ms Kodnani was not a minister at the time of the riots, but was appointed junior minister for women and child development by Mr Modi in 2007.

His critics have accused him of "rewarding her with the ministership" for her role in the riots.

Unapologetic
An Indian worker poses with masks bearing the face of BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi at a printing press near Ahmedabad on March 31, 2014 At Narendra Modi's election rallies, hundreds turn up wearing his face masks

Mr Modi may polarise public opinion in India and abroad, but he has also been credited for bringing prosperity and development to Gujarat and enjoys support from some of India's top industrialists.

The state's economy has been growing steadily, and Mr Modi's image is that of a clean and efficient administrator who is corruption-free.

As a result, he has been re-elected three times as the state's chief minister.

When he was first re-elected in December 2002, a few months after the riots, his biggest gains were in the areas of inter-communal violence; he campaigned openly on a platform of hardline Hinduism.

But in the state elections held in 2007 and 2012, he talked mostly about the growth of Gujarat.

While those who benefited during his time as chief minister applauded his return to power, for the victims of the 2002 riots, his victory was just one more symbol of injustice.

He has never expressed any remorse or offered any apologies for the riots, and many Muslims displaced by the violence continue to live in ghettos near Ahmedabad, Gujarat's largest city and commercial capital.

RSS support

Analysts say the reason Mr Modi remains unscathed is the strong support he enjoys among senior leaders in the right-wing Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The RSS, founded in the 1920s with a clear objective to make India a Hindu nation, functions as an ideological fountainhead to a host of hardline Hindu groups - including Mr Modi's BJP with which it has close ties.

Supporters of Narendra Modi, PM candidate for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, attend a rally in Amroha, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh March 29, 2014 Mr Modi is known as a brilliant speaker

The RSS has a particularly strong base in Gujarat, and Mr Modi's ties to it were seen as a strength the organisation could tap into when he joined the state unit of the BJP in the 1980s.

Mr Modi has a formidable reputation as a party organiser, along with an ability for secrecy, which comes from years of training as an RSS "pracharak" or propagandist, analysts say.

He got his big break in the public arena when his predecessor in the state was forced to step down in the fallout from the earthquake in January 2001 that killed nearly 20,000 people.

And Mr Modi's colourful website beckons users in with more than a nod to his muscular nationalist campaign: "India First!" it proclaims to visitors.

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