Ghosts of Gujarat riots haunt Modi's PM ambitions

He may be the opposition frontrunner for next year's Indian elections, but the ghosts of the carnage in his fiefdom a decade ago have returned to haunt Narendra Modi's prime ministerial ambitions.

Modi, chief minister of the thriving state of Gujarat for over a decade and favourite to be the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) candidate for the national polls, has been campaigning furiously to paint himself as a pro-business reformist who can revive the fortunes of the world's largest democracy.

But a new court case and an anti-Modi outburst from one of the BJP's allies have picked at wounds which date back to events 11 years ago, when 2,000 people were killed in religious riots. Most were Muslims.

And for all his efforts to wipe the slate clean, analysts say that his Hindu nationalist party may well conclude that he remains too divisive a figure to steer it to victory over the secular ruling Congress party.

"Is Modi capable of leading the party to victory across the country? The BJP could take that kind of risk with (former BJP premier) Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996... but with Modi there's a suspicion that he might polarise the country," Parsa Venkateshwar Rao, a columnist for the Mumbai-based DNA daily, told AFP.

B.G. Verghese of the Centre for Policy Research, in New Delhi, said Modi's rivals in the BJP were happy to see him make the running "as they don't want to reveal their hands" but he ultimately has too many enemies.

"Moderates are suspicious of him and he has many enemies even within the Gujarat BJP itself... They feel he is a divisive force in the party and in the community," Verghese told AFP.

India's parliamentary arithmetic means the BJP -- currently the largest opposition party, with 115 MPs -- not only needs to win 200 of the 550 seats up for grabs but must then forge an alliance with regional parties.

At the moment, it has an alliance with eight other parties -- all of which it needs to keep onside to have a realistic chance of forging the next government.

But the Janata Dal United (JD-U) party, the BJP's biggest partner with 20 seats, made clear its opposition to Modi last week as the party's executive accused him of having "failed in discharging his duties" during the riots.

Other potential kingmakers have voiced distaste, such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) which is part of the Congress-led coalition but whose leader has made a point of praising another of the BJP's big guns, L.K. Advani.

Polls show Modi is the most popular of the BJP's leaders, in particular drawing strong support from India's emerging urban middle class.

Gujarat has enjoyed annual growth rates of 10-12 percent since 2007, far outpacing the rest of the country, while its cities have benefited from major development projects such as metro systems.

And as the son of a tea stallholder, Modi's backstory should serve as an inspiring contrast to that of Rahul Gandhi -- the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi ruling dynasty who could well be Congress's election frontman.

But Modi remains toxic in the eyes of India's Muslim minority which accounts for around 13 percent of the population but is much larger in politically vital states such as northern Uttar Pradesh.

While refusing to apologise for 2002, Modi argues that Gujarat has proven to be a model of "peace, unity and compassion", telling AFP in an interview in October it would not have prospered "if the poison of religion was present".

All investigations have cleared him of any personal responsibility but one of his former ministers, Maya Kodnani, was jailed for life for instigating the killing of 97 Muslims.

The most high-profile victim was retired Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, burned to death when a mob attacked his home in Gujarat's main city Ahmedabad.

Now a local court is to hear a petition from April 24 by his widow Zakia Jafri challenging the findings of an official inquiry which cleared Modi.

In an editorial last week The Economist said there was much to admire in Modi, who was boycotted by the European Union until recently and is still unable to gain a visa for the United States.

But it added: "Although Mr Modi may be clean enough to avoid conviction... if he dreams of becoming a leader for all India, including its 177 million Muslims, he must show genuine contrition for the horrors that happened when he was in charge in Gujarat."