NEW DELHI, Sept 16 (Reuters) - A decade after religious riots cast a pall over his career, India's most popular and pro-business opposition leader has sprung back to the centre of the political stage.
Suddenly the idea that Narendra Modi might become India's next prime minister doesn't seem so outlandish.
On Monday, the Supreme Court demoted to a lower tribunal a case accusing Modi of complicity in riots that ripped through the west-coast state of Gujarat in 2002, killing at least a thousand people, mainly Muslims.
Seizing the moment, the astute 61-year-old has announced that he will be staging a three-day fast as a gesture of "harmony" with the Muslim community.
"He is making an attempt for an image overhaul," said Swapan Dasgupta, a conservative commentator and former editor of news weekly India Today. He said Modi was finally responding to criticism he had shown no contrition for the 2002 riots.
The nascent rehabilitation of Gujarat's chief minister has electrified his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), already on a roll as it capitalises on long-running troubles of the centre-left government led by the Congress party.
HINDU NATIONALIST WITH A MODERN IMAGE
Modi consistently appears in polls as India's most popular state chief. An August survey by India Today showed him to be by far the top-rated opposition politician.
The latest issue of India's glitzy Society magazine ran a fawning interview with Modi entitled "From Merchant of Death to Sultan of Corporate Governance."
In a sign his rise is worrying the government, whose standing has plunged in opinion polls over rising prices and graft cases, two Congress party officials announced they would also stop eating to demand that Modi apologise for the riots.
A day after the court's order, BJP chiefs leapt on a glowing report prepared for the U.S. Congress which said that Modi's war on red tape and corruption had made Gujarat a major driver of national growth - perhaps a sign of softening attitudes in Washington since he was denied a U.S. travel visa in 2005 for religious intolerance.
Popular for bringing jobs, electricity and better roads to the booming state, Modi is loved by business leaders. Although long thought of as a contender to be prime minister if his party were to win 2014 elections, his association with Gujarat's violence has held him back.
The court's decision does not clear Modi's name as the case will go back to a lower court in Gujarat. But it reduces pressure on him and adds to momentum building behind the BJP, which leapt ahead of the Congress party in two national opinion polls published this month.
India has a tradition of fasting for political ends. It was famously used by Gujarat's most famous son, the Mahatma Gandhi, against British colonial rule. More recently, activist Anna Hazare, 74, galvanised middle class anger over graft under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with a 13-day hunger strike.
Modi is a major figure in an ideology shared by the BJP that emphasises a traditional Hindu nature of India. The party governed from 1998-2004 after rising to prominence with a nationwide movement centered on the destruction of a mosque built on the site of a Hindu temple.
He also epitomises the more modern image now favoured by the party, with a focus on clean governance, security and economic management in one of the world's fastest-growing major economies.
The BJP is not itself free of graft, though. It has been mired in a mining scandal that recently cost the chief minister of Karnataka his job in the only southern state that the party rules.
The BJP's biggest challenge may be its ability to forge alliances with regional parties, key for any party to be able to form a government.
It has three more years to get its house in order before the general elections. Modi faces a state re-election before, which he is expected to easily win.
"We have the political edge right now. Congress will fall on their own sword so it's a good time to be in opposition," a senior BJP member said.
It is by no means certain that Modi would be the BJP's option for prime minister, since he alienates many Muslim voters, key to some of the party's coalition partners in major states. Some members of the BJP-led opposition alliance see Modi as a polarising figure who risks increasing votes for the Congress party's likely candidate, Rahul Gandhi.
At the last election, party patriach L.K. Advani was unsuccessfully projected as the candidate. The party now talks of running with a group of leaders, including Advani, the 83-year-old party elder still vying for attention with a national "clean politics" tour.
Other contenders include Arun Jaitley, the party's wily leader in parliament's upper house, and Sushma Swaraj, his combative counterpart in the lower house. (Additional reporting by Paul de Bendern, Annie Banerji and C.K. Nayak; Editing by John Chalmers)
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