India's Modi: Abrasive Hindu nationalist set to be PM

India's Modi: Abrasive Hindu nationalist set to be PM
Mr Modi has also raised the topic of skills creation as a means of enhancing economic activity. He also has plans to bring down inflation, thus reducing the need for social welfare schemes.

NEW DELHI - To admirers he is a Thatcherite reformer set to jolt India from the economic doldrums, while his opponents liken him to Putin or even Hitler. Indian election frontrunner Narendra Modi divides opinion like few other politicians.

The rise of one of India's most polarising public figures even split his own party, where worries about his controversial past and abrasive personality meant he had to overcome heavy internal dissent.

The 63-year-old son of a low-caste tea seller from western Gujarat state is seen as a hardliner within the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist opposition last in power between 1998 and 2004.

A yoga-lover and strict vegetarian who is said to always eat alone, Modi is steeped in the ideology of Hindu nationalism, having joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a boy.

Committed to defending Hindu culture, the RSS has been banned twice by the government, and its cadres often harbour hostile views of India's 140 million Muslims, the country's largest religious minority.

While he has mostly campaigned on a platform of good governance and economic revival, Modi's links to anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people died, remain his biggest handicap.

He was chief minister when riots broke out and, although he has never been found guilty of wrongdoing, the failure of his administration to control the violence left a legacy of distrust and suspicion.

His refusal to apologise and his decision to appoint a woman to his cabinet who was later found guilty of orchestrating some of the worst of the killing

added to the rancour. The United States and European powers boycotted him for more than a decade.

"Those asking for an apology wanted the apology to be an act of confession," senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley told foreign journalists recently as he reminded them that Modi had been investigated and cleared.

Business-friendly

Jaitley said he believed Indians had moved on from the issue and were now focusing on Modi's record as a business-friendly administrator during his 13 years running Gujarat as chief minister.

He has many fans in corporate India - notably the country's richest family, the Ambanis - and foreign behemoths such as Ford have praised his government as efficient and clean.

Between 2005 and 2012, Gujarat recorded average annual growth rates of 10.13 per cent, the second-highest pace among large or medium-sized states, official data shows.

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