NEW DELHI (AP) — India's main opposition party announced Sunday that a deeply divisive Hindu ideologue will head its 2014 election campaign, indicating he would likely be its choice for prime minister if the party were to win.
The appointment of Narendra Modi to head the key campaign committee was so divisive that even some top leaders of his own Bharatiya Janata Party declined to attend the three-day party conference where he was awarded the post.
Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, is known for pushing a hard-line Hindu nationalist agenda.
He was the top elected official in Gujarat when religious riots broke out in the state in 2001, killing more than 1,100 people, mostly Muslims. While Modi was never charged with a crime, his critics say he did little to stop the three months of rioting.
Modi has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the violence, but has never expressed remorse or offered an apology.
Several top leaders of Modi's own party refused to attend the conclave knowing that Modi's appointment to head the party campaign committee was inevitable. They fear that the party will fare badly in the upcoming countrywide elections due to Modi's polarizing image.
Some party leaders fear that with Modi in charge, the BJP could turn off voters and coalition allies, throwing away a prime chance to win control of the government from the scandal-plagued Congress Party. But many also have been positioning themselves for years for the party's top job and they are annoyed at the rise of a rival as well as worried that Modi's centralized ruling style will leave them out in the cold if their party does take power.
Veteran party leader Lal Krishna Advani and many other senior BJP leaders stayed away from the conclave that was held in the southwestern beach resort state of Goa, sparking media reports of a rift in the party.
But Rajnath Singh, BJP president, said the decision to elevate Modi as the party's campaign chief had widespread support in the party.
"The decision was unanimous. The entire party has faith in Modi. BJP considers the 2014 parliamentary elections to be a major challenge," Singh told reporters.
But 63-year-old Modi has held up his success in transforming Gujarat into an economic powerhouse and contrasted it to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's scandal-ridden Congress Party government, which has seen its position dramatically weaken in recent years.
Rajnath Singh said people had lost faith in the Congress Party-led government and were looking to the BJP to lead the country.
"We are confident that the BJP will be voted to power in 2014. We are determined to win," Singh said.
As his supporters set off firecrackers and beat drums in celebration of his appointment, Modi said he had the support of the party leadership.
"Senior leaders have reposed their faith in me," Modi said.
His priority would be to oust the Congress from power, he told party supporters.
"We will leave no stone unturned to achieve our goal of building an India free of the Congress," he said.
Congress party leaders reacted to Modi's appointment by referring to the dissension within the BJP.
"If they can't keep a party together, how will they run the country?" asked Rajeev Shukla, a top leader and minister for parliamentary affairs.
"Congress is not afraid of Narendra Modi," Shukla said.