BHOPAL, India (Reuters) - Five months before India's next elections are due, there is already an air of victory around Narendra Modi as he strides from one jam-packed rally to the next. And yet, a regional leader from his Hindu nationalist fold is quietly emerging as an alternative to lead the country.
The main opposition party's candidate for prime minister, Modi is unquestionably the man to beat as the ruling Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, stumbles towards a vote that opinion polls show it will lose.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is tipped to win the election but it may not get an outright majority, and he may be unacceptable to potential coalition partners.
Ever since a 2002 spasm of sectarian bloodshed in the western Indian state he rules, Modi has been unable to shake off allegations that he carries a deep-seated bias against Muslims, a community that makes up 13 percent of the population.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a softly spoken and unassuming leader of the center-right BJP, could be a more acceptable figure for would-be coalition allies.
This month, Chouhan notched up a thumping election victory in Madhya Pradesh, a sprawling central state with a population larger than that of France, becoming its chief minister for a third time.
"Shivraj Chouhan is no threat to Modi, he is not a challenger, but his huge victory raises the stakes," said Girija Shankar, a political consultant with close ties to the Madhya Pradesh administration. "On the scale of electability and performance, the message is - he is not any weaker than Modi."
Congress did something similar after elections 10 years ago - after wresting power from the BJP, its leader, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, declined the prime ministership. By naming unassuming technocrat Manmohan Singh as prime minister, she denied the opposition any chance of using her foreign roots to attack the government.
A farmer-turned-politician, Chouhan is similarly far less divisive than Modi.
There are other BJP leaders waiting in the wings for the premiership if minor parties that are expected to hold the key to power after the election insist on a prime minister other than Modi as the price for their support.
Among them are Lal Krishna Advani, a veteran of the party who is still seen as a contender despite his 86 years, as well as former government ministers Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. All three are virtually household names across India, and Chouhan - a former parliament backbencher - has a far lower profile.
EARNING HIS SPURS
Chouhan has long been an outsider among the political elite of New Delhi. When he was first elected to parliament in 1991 he didn't have a sweater to ward against the capital's winter chill, recalls a former associate Anurag Pateriya, who picked up a cheap one from a street market before they boarded the train.
Chouhan declined requests to be interviewed for this report.
Swimming below the national radar, he has transformed Madhya Pradesh from a poverty-blighted backwater, unleashing average annual economic growth of 10 percent over the past five years on the back of an unprecedented agriculture boom.
The explosion in farm output - agricultural growth in the state was 18 percent last year, the country's highest - has been fed by interest-free loans to farmers, a trebling of irrigation cover and a dramatic improvement in electricity supplies.
Out on a modern four-lane highway from the state capital Bhopal to the commercial city of Indore, the rural prosperity is hard to miss. Fields upon fields of soybeans, mustard and wheat stretch out, broken only by factories starting to come up on cleared land.
Children in uniforms scurry to school on bicycles provided by the state government, pedalling along new roads that are linked to remote villages. They will all be given a free lunch.
Nearby, expectant and new mothers collect free packets of soya, a mixture of rice and lentils and sweets, a Chouhan initiative to lift the state's infant and maternal mortality rates up to the national average.
"As a consequence of our pro-poor policies, we subsidise agriculture," said Manor Srivastava, principal secretary to Chouhan, pointing out that 80 percent of the state's population is dependent on farming. "We make no bones about it - WTO or no - we are unabashedly doing it."
Chouhan has also introduced tax-friendly policies to attract industry to his state. Along the state highway, Indian firm Deepak Fastners is building Asia's largest plant to manufacture specialized nuts and bolts for car engines and aircraft. The first phase of the project is expected to cost some $38 million.
A NUMBERS GAME
Madhya Pradesh may still lag behind "vibrant" Gujarat, the neighboring state run by Modi and a darling of investors.
But unlike his more famous colleague, Chouhan has walked a fine line between a secular image and sticking to the BJP's Hindu nationalist roots.
As assistants scurried about the chief minister's imposing colonial-era bungalow before his inauguration last week, Chouhan told them that a congregation of Islamic scholars was important for everyone, said a top aide, who asked not to be identified.
That inclusive approach has won Chouhan support from a fair sprinkling of Muslims, who have traditionally shunned his party.
For now, Modi is on a roll, tapping into public anger with the Congress Party after years of corruption scandals, stubborn inflation and dwindling economic growth.
But, privately, party leaders concede that the BJP may not be able to form a government with Modi as prime minister if it wins less than 180 of the 543 elected seats in the lower house of parliament. If it falls short of that number, it might have to ditch him and find another candidate.
To rule, a party needs the support of 272 members. Opinion polls so far have forecast the BJP will win around 160 seats, which means it may need to join hands with a cluster of smaller parties to reach the halfway mark.
The BJP will need support from regional parties in the south and east that may be reluctant to associate themselves with the polarizing Modi, fearing a backlash from Muslims in their states. One ally in the heartland state of Bihar cut ties with the BJP this year after Modi was elevated to a national role, and the party has yet to find a substitute.
For the moment, Chouhan's camp is quietly biding its time.
"We want to stay below the national radar, we don't have extra-territorial ambitions," said the aide. "But people in the party, those who have tensions with Modi, may try to push him forward."