NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's main opposition party rallied behind business-friendly leader Narendra Modi on the weekend, giving the clearest sign yet the Hindu nationalist party will make the politician tainted by religious riots its candidate for prime minister.
Leader after leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), at a three-day national executive meeting, showered praise on Modi, who is chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. They draped him with rose garlands in a sign of respect.
A senior party leader said there was a groundswell of support for Modi as a candidate in elections in Asia's third largest economy due within a year, when he is likely to face Rahul Gandhi, heir to India's oldest political dynasty.
"There's a growing interest in Modi as the PM candidate," Arun Jaitley, the leader of the opposition in the upper house of parliament said in an interview with the a television network. "And it's just not because of a media buzz."
"I think Modi has made a huge mark on the India polity."
Supporters chanted "Hail Modi" and "Bring Modi" during speeches at the meeting. Party chief Rajnath Singh embraced Modi and heaped praise on his achievements in Gujarat, where the economy has grown at an average of more than 10 percent for several years.
Modi's reputation for clean governance and clear rules make him popular with the middle class and a favorite of Indian and foreign corporations doing business in his state.
But his political ambitions were dented by 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people, according to official figures, most of them Muslim.
Detractors accuse Modi of turning a blind eye to the violence. He denies the accusation but many Indians view him with suspicion and even some allies of the BJP oppose his rise.
The riots made him a political pariah, shunned by most Western diplomats and denied a visa to travel to the United States. That is changing, with ambassador-level officials first from Britain, then the European Union meeting him this year for the first time in more than a decade.
"WITH A MISSION"
His growing popularity among Indians fed up with corruption scandals and a weak economy under the Congress party-led government, along with his new acceptance overseas, seem to have given the BJP confidence to back him.
"Gujarat has become a symbol of pride for BJP," said party president Singh in his speech on Saturday.
In December, Modi won a third term in state elections and he since been praised even by an influential conservative Muslim leader, who said Muslims were better off in Gujarat than in some other states.
Under India's parliamentary system, parties do not always formally announce a candidate before an election but usually project one figure as the likely person to form the government if the party wins.
The Congress party has not announced a candidate, but Gandhi, whose mother is party president, is a clear favorite.
"The time has come for a comparison between the BJP and the Congress," Modi said during a speech on Sunday.
He criticized the ruling party's dynastic tendencies and accused the government of being too interested in under-the-table pay-offs.
"BJP is with a mission, Congress is for commission," he said to loud applause.