Will Narendra Modi's rise make or break BJP?

Narendra Modi

As the prosperous Gujarat goes to the polls this week, few doubt Narendra Modi will win a fourth successive term as its chief minister.

What is not clear is whether the popular, but divisive 62-year-old will win a big enough mandate to secure the backing of his party to lead the charge against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition in a general election due by 2014.

Many believe that only Modi can reinvigorate the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has failed to capitalise on the troubles of a government hit by a sharp economic downturn to a string of corruption scandals.

Surely, they argue, voters across the country will elect a leader who has ably brought Gujarat its uninterrupted power supplies, smooth roads and flood of investment.

Ironically, however, if Modi is catapulted by this week's state election into poll position as the BJP's leader for 2014, it could ultimately scupper his party's chances of winning back power for the first time since 2004.

Critics speak of him as an authoritarian and vindictive leader.

Worse, the toxic memory of religious riots that tore through his state a decade ago leaves suspicions that Modi remains a Hindu hardliner who will alienate more voters than his leadership and oratory skills could hope to gain.

"He's capable of wrecking the BJP's hopes at the national level," said James Manor, professor of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.

"He doesn't excite large numbers of voters outside Gujarat.He frightens many more than he excites." Such an outcome may create more political risk in a country that has fallen out of favour with investors over the past two years thanks to policy drift and incompetence in New Delhi.

A weakened BJP incapable of taking on Singh's Congress party will probably lead to a highly fractured vote in the 2014 general election.

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