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A Preview of India’s Next PM?

One of India’s most popular and controversial politicians, Narendra Modi, is set to win re-election in the booming coastal state of Gujarat this week. But the elections in his home state, which accounts for only 5 percent of India’s population but 22 percent of its exports, are seen by many as merely the semi-finals for the main event two years away.

Modi is expected to run as candidate for prime minster in India’s 2014 national elections, where his Hindu nationalist BJP party face the incumbent Congress Party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In a recent poll, Modi placed ahead in popularity to Rahul Gandhi, the likely Congress Party candidate. Reuters:

Modi’s rise could also revive the BJP. The party is adrift, its leadership plagued by internal squabbles and its Hindu-revivalist ideology lacking the appeal it had in the 1990s.

Modi’s record in Gujarat – strong governance, job creation and promises of more affordable housing and healthcare – strike a chord with middle-class voters who form the BJP’s traditional support base.

But Modi’s popularity is a double-edged sword. While many recognize his economic accomplishments, accusations of complicity in the bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 have tarnished his reputation, making him a highly divisive figure at home and abroad. The U.S. denied him a visa on the grounds of religious intolerance in 2005.

But the British recently ended their boycott of Modi and are now reaching out to him, perhaps in anticipation of an electoral victory in 2014. And Modi, for his part, has been trying to change his image, fasting alongside Muslims for “peace, unity and harmony” and emphasizing that Gujarat’s economic success benefits both Muslims and Hindus alike.

For the U.S., Modi presents a dilemma. If he becomes a plausible candidate for prime minister, the U.S. will have to choose between two of its principal foreign policy objectives: building good relations with the Islamic world and deepening strategic engagement with India as part of its larger Asia policy. Fortunately, we have another two years to figure it out.

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