NEW DELHI (AFP) – India's main opposition named hardline Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi on Friday as its prime ministerial candidate for elections due next year, overriding doubts in the party about his polarising character.
The decision caps the ascent of 62-year-old Modi in the party, which has spent nearly a decade in the political wilderness.
"Sri Narendra Modi will be our prime ministerial candidate," party chairman Rajnath Singh told a press conference called after a meeting of leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Modi smiled while posing for photos in a lime-green tunic and wearing a garland of flowers. Thousands of supporters hailed him by beating drums and shouting "Narendra Modi -- our leader."
"I seek the blessings of millions of Indians to join our effort to steer the country out of these perilous days," Modi said in his first comments.
In June, Modi, popularly known as "NaMo", was selected to head the BJP's campaign in the elections slated to be held by May 2014, a move that saw senior leader L.K. Advani resign from key party posts in protest.
The Hindu-nationalist BJP has been fractured by arguments over Modi among its leaders.
Several BJP figures have expressed concern he is too divisive a figure who could deter voters from minority religions -- particularly Muslims, who number around 130 million in the majority Hindu nation of 1.2 billion people.
Modi, son of a tea stall owner, has sought to paint himself as a pro-business reformist who could revive Asia's third-largest economy, which is growing at its slowest rate in a decade and is struggling with a currency at near record lows.
Though the market-friendly leader is popular with the corporate world, he remains tarred by riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 in which as many as 2,000 people were killed, mainly Muslims, according to rights groups.
Modi was chief minister at the time and accused of turning a blind eye to the violence.
He has denied any wrongdoing, but one of his former ministers was sentenced to a jail term of nearly three decades last year for orchestrating some of the bloodshed. The Supreme Court once likened Modi to Nero, the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned.
Modi has since been elected three times as the head of the wealthy western state.
Rahul Gandhi, 43, who is some two decades younger than Modi and heir to India's most powerful political dynasty, has been groomed by the Congress party to take over the reins from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
But Gandhi remains reluctant to be pushed to the fore and there are doubts about his ability and hunger for the job.
The Congress-led government is lagging badly in the polls, its popularity sapped by the economic downturn and a slew of graft scandals.
Modi told AFP in an interview last year that Gujarat -- whose economic growth of 10 to 12 percent has long outpaced many other Indian states -- was a model of "peace, unity and compassion".
Last week, a poll suggested 74 percent of India's business leaders support Modi as the next premier, with Gandhi a distant second.
He stresses his austere tastes -- apart from his immaculately tailored knee-length shirts, known as kurtas -- and humble roots to draw a line between the wealthy Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has produced three Congress premiers.
But despite his success in his home state, Modi's pan-India appeal and ability to erase memories of the riots remains an issue in constitutionally secular India.
Opinion polls point to a fractured election outcome in which smaller regional parties with differing agendas and which rely on Muslims and other religious minorities for support could end up with an upper hand.
Under such a scenario, Modi's Hindu nationalist politics are seen discouraging prospective coalition partners.
Modi's style is unlike former BJP premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who served as prime minister briefly in 1996 and then from 1998 to 2004, and was known for his consensual touch.
Modi "remains a hugely divisive figure for many Indians," said analyst B.G. Verghese at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research, an independent think-tank.