India's opposition names hardliner Modi as PM candidate

NEW DELHI - India's main opposition named hardline Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate on Friday for next year's elections, overriding doubts in the party about his polarising character.

"Sri Narendra Modi will be our prime ministerial candidate," party chairman Rajnath Singh told a press conference called after a meeting of leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The decision caps the rise of 62-year-old Modi in the party, which has spent nearly a decade in the political wilderness.

He smiled while posing for photos in a yellow tunic and wearing a garland of flowers.

"I seek the blessings of millions of Indians to join our effort to steer the country out of these perilous days," he said in his first comments, declining to take questions from waiting journalists.

In June, Modi, popularly known as "NaMo", was selected to head the BJP's campaign in the 2014 elections, a move that saw senior leader L.K. Advani resign from top party posts in protest.

The Hindu-nationalist BJP has been fractured by arguments over Modi among its leaders, with several fearing he is too divisive a figure who could deter voters from minority religions, particularly Muslims.

Modi, the son of a tea stall owner, has sought to paint himself as a pro-business reformist who could revive Asia's third-largest economy, which is growing at its slowest rate in a decade and is struggling with a currency at near record lows.

Though the market-friendly leader is popular with the corporate world, he remains tarred by the riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 in which as many as 2,000 people were killed, mainly Muslims, according to rights groups.

Modi was chief minister at the time and denied any wrongdoing, but one of his former ministers was jailed last year for orchestrating some of the violence. The Supreme Court once likened him to Nero, the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned.

Modi has since been elected three times as the head of the wealthy western state.

Rahul Gandhi, 43, who is some two decades younger than Modi and heir to India's most powerful political dynasty, has been groomed by the Congress party to take over the reins from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

But he remains reluctant to be pushed to the fore and there are doubts about his ability and hunger for the job.

The Congress-led government is lagging badly in the polls, its popularity sapped by the economic downturn and a slew of corruption scandals.