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NEWSMAKER - Narendra Modi shows he's unstoppable

AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - His supporters have little doubt that he is the true saviour of millions of Hindus, while his critics accuse him of being responsible for the slaughter of hundreds, possibly thousands, of minority Muslims.

Supporters of Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) wear masks of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi during celebrations at the party headquarters in Ahmedabad December 23, 2007. REUTERS/Amit Dave

The man himself, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat who won a third term in office on Sunday, believes he is a messiah tasked with ensuring his state remains among India’s most developed.

He is either adored or abhorred, held in awe or shunned as a pariah. But whichever way he is treated, Modi, 57, has ensured he is one politician India cannot ignore.

On Sunday, he showed why.

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were forecast to have only a narrow edge ahead of Gujarat’s Dec. 11 and Dec. 16 polls with Congress, which is in power centrally, snapping at his heels.

But the results surpassed expectations even of party managers in New Delhi, with the BJP winning or leading in 119 of the total 182 seats, compared to 127 in 2002.

“Narendra Modi has immense credibility with the people of Gujarat,” said Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP leader and party strategist for the state. “Here is a man who is honest, he is obsessed with what he does, he is committed to the people.”

That, however, is just one side of the image of Modi, a grey-bearded, bespectacled, fiery orator who has come close to becoming the rock star of right-wing politics in India.

Modi is a hate figure for Muslims and millions of secular Hindus across the country. He stands accused of turning a blind eye, and even encouraging, the killing of 1,200 to 2,500 people, most of them Muslims, in communal riots in the state in 2002.

The Supreme Court compared him to Roman Emperor Nero, remembered in legend as playing his lyre while Rome burned, and Washington denied him a visa for severe violations of religious freedom.

LARGER AMBITIONS?

“He has won this election through his oratory, his body language and absolute communal agenda,” said Veerappa Moily, chief spokesman of the Congress party.

During campaigning, Modi initially chose to seek votes on a platform of growth and development.

But as the two-stage vote on Dec. 11 and 16 seemed to be getting tight, the gloves came off and Modi returned to his pet hardline Hindu themes.

Modi, who holds a master’s degree in political science, began as a campaigner in the hardline Hindu outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP.

He went on to become a BJP strategist in New Delhi and his commitment to the party’s agenda and oratory skills saw him being sent to Gujarat as chief minister in 2001 after it was hit by an earthquake in which more than 20,000 people died.

While few Muslim victims of the 2002 riots got justice, Modi chose to focus on growth and development and even earned the praise of some of India’s top industrialists.

Analysts are unable to agree on whether he has been praised too much within Gujarat or demonised excessively outside.

However, most agree that he seems set to play a larger role for the party, possibly at the national level.

“Why Modi has retooled himself as a typical, middle-class politician is obvious: he has larger pan-Indian ambitions,” Ashis Nandy, a leading commentator and clinical psychologist, wrote in the Outlook magazine this month.

“His present incarnation, as part of the political mainstream, makes him less fearsome but more dangerous. In five years, he has a fair chance of making it to the top of his party at the national level.”

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