New Delhi: The countdown to India's general election began Friday with the BJP declaring Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate despite party patriarch L.K. Advani's opposition. A confident Modi pledged to lead the BJP to victory in 2014.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's decision, expected since Modi was named the election campaign chief in June also against Advani's wishes, triggered a wave of euphoria in the main opposition party that has been out of power since stunningly losing the 2004 Lok Sabha battle.
The Congress spoke in different voices. While spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury called it "an internal affair" of BJP, Law Minister Kapil Sibal was sarcastic: "If BJP wants to celebrate an early Diwali, let them."
The Congress is unlikely to name a prime ministerial candidate though there is clamour within to pick Rahul Gandhi, the party vice president and son of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
There were joyous scenes at the BJP headquarters here as the 62-year-old Modi drove in to attend a meeting of the parliamentary board which decided to name him its general. More celebrations took place later too.
BJP president Rajnath Singh made the formal announcement at a media conference, and Modi pledged to do everything to ensure that the BJP again got to rule the world's largest democracy.
"I promise that in the 2014 election, the BJP will emerge victorious," said Modi, dressed in a lemon green buttoned-up traditional kurta, flanked by senior colleagues, the only absentee being former mentor Advani.
"For this, the party will work hard and we will leave no stone unturned," said Modi after accepting sweets, bouquets and garlands. "I am sure people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari will vote for the (BJP)."
The Friday announcement came after days of drama during which Rajnath Singh tried his best to persuade those who ranged against Modi to fall in line. He succeeded -- except in Advani's case.
Advani not only stayed away from the parliamentary board meeting but wrote -- a la June -- a stinging letter to Rajnath Singh voicing displeasure over the latter's style of functioning -- an obvious reference to the way the party president goaded others to come on board the Modi decision.
The BJP decision on Modi -- widely seen as a divisive figure despite enjoying mass support -- became public knowledge Friday afternoon through Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, who was one of the two key allies Rajnath Singh telephoned seeking their support.
"The decision ... is in tune with the mood of the people," Thackeray said.
A political pundit aligned with the BJP hailed Friday's decision.
"This will make a huge difference to the BJP," G.V.L. Narasimha Rao told IANS. "Across the country, there is a very, very strong wave in support of Modi, even among non-traditional BJP supporters."
Like in the case of the now ailing Atal Bihari Vajpayee and later Advani, Modi's personal popularity exceeded that of the party, Rao said.
"While the BJP got just about 18 percent of the votes in the last Lok Sabha election, Modi currently enjoys the support of more than 40 percent of voters. That will make all the difference," he said.
"This means that there is a huge mass which will vote for the BJP only if Modi leads the party. This is particularly true in critical states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar."
Modi, who once sold tea in a railway station in Gujarat, said it was a matter of pride that the BJP had catapulted him -- despite his origin from "a humble family" -- as the prime ministerial candidate.
In his four-minute speech in Hindi, Modi paid tributes to Vajpayee and Advani. In an attempt to buy peace, Modi later drove to Advani's residence but details of what they discussed were not available.
"We have always announced prime ministerial candidates... Seeing the national mood, we have decided that Narendra Modi will be our PM candidate in the Lok Sabha election," Rajnath Singh said.
Reactions on Modi poured in from across the country. DMK chief M. Karunandhi spoke out against him while former BJP leader B.S. Yeddyurappa hinted he might return to the party fold.