By Satarupa Bhattacharjya
NEW DELHI, March 3 (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
Modi's reputation for clean governance and clear rules make
him popular with the middle class and a favourite 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
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 favourite.
"The time has come for a comparison between the BJP and the
Congress," Modi said during a speech on Sunday.
He criticised the ruling party's dynastic tendencies and
accused the government of being too interested in
"BJP is with a mission, Congress is for commission," he said
to loud applause.
(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Robert Birsel)