Modi draws business praise, avoids talk of higher office

GANDHINAGAR Sat Jan 12, 2013 11:51pm IST

1 of 2. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, attends the meeting of the 57th National Development Council (NDC) in New Delhi December 27, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/B Mathur/Files

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GANDHINAGAR (Reuters) - Fresh off his re-election as chief minister of Gujarat and amid expectations he could contend to be the next prime minister, Narendra Modi avoided talk of a bigger political future during a state investment event.

Still, Modi, one of India's most popular and divisive politicians, was the star of his "Vibrant Gujarat Summit," which featured a parade of corporate heavyweights as well as foreign officials who extolled the business-friendly state and Modi's leadership even as they mostly kept clear of politics.

"In Gujarat, we see a culture of implementation, reflecting the qualities of the chief minister," Cyrus Mistry, who recently succeeded Ratan Tata as head of the Tata Group, India's biggest business house, said from a stage he shared with Modi.

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In one of Modi's biggest wins, in 2008 he convinced Tata Motors (TAMO.NS) to build a factory in the state for its low-cost Nano after its plans to make the car in West Bengal were disrupted by farmers.

Last month, Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 115 of the state assembly's 182 seats against 61 for the Congress party, which heads a national government that has been beset by corruption scandals and presided over an economy on track this fiscal year for its slowest growth in a decade.

Modi appeared to downplay ambitions for higher office, making a point of inviting delegates to the next edition of the event in 2015. "When I gave a similar invitation in 2011, the media had mocked me saying I was yet to be re-elected and was already issuing invitations. This time, there is no such problem," he said in his closing remarks, delivered in Hindi.

Modi cancelled a press conference planned for Saturday due to "urgent work," according to a text message from organisers.

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Gujarat, with a long tradition of entrepreneurship, has been a magnet for industrial investment thanks in part to what is widely regarded as efficient state government, which stands in contrast to the red tape and unpredictability elsewhere in India that frustrate businesses and investors.

While Modi, 62, wins praise for that, critics have accused him of not doing enough to stop - or of even quietly encouraging - religious riots in 2002 that saw as many as 2,000 killed, most of them Muslims, which makes him a controversial choice for the BJP despite his star power.

India is due to hold national elections by 2014.

One of the few major executives in attendance to speak openly of Modi as candidate for prime minister was Sanjay Lalbhai, chairman of Arvind Ltd (ARVN.NS), a textile maker based in nearby Ahmedabad.

"We are dealing with him as the chief minister of Gujarat as of now, but I am sure he has the skills required at the national level also, the decisiveness, the leadership," he told Reuters.

Others lauding Modi included the billionaire Ambani brothers, whose Gujarat-born father founded Reliance Industries (RELI.NS), India's most valuable company and operator of the world's biggest refinery, in Jamnagar.

"Gujarat has been the birthplace of India's greatest leaders. What all these men have said about leadership, Narendrabhai has practised in his 10-year tenure as chief minister," Anil Ambani said, stopping short of expressing support for Modi as a potential prime minister, which he did in 2009.

Shekhar Iyer, senior associate editor at the Hindustan Times, said the presence of corporate heavyweights was a demonstration of industry support for Modi as a potential prime minister.

"That underlying support is always there for him, because he is seen as a kind of person who can get things done, and he understands industry," Iyer said.

(Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

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