NEW DELHI (Reuters) - He has been pilloried for horrific riots in which hundreds of Muslims were killed on his watch in Gujarat 12 years ago. He is vilified by many as a fearsome Hindu supremacist.
And yet, a Reuters analysis of Friday’s sweeping election victory for Narendra Modi shows that many of India’s Muslim voters appear to have put aside their fears and backed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has promised to bring jobs and a revival of the economy.
Alongside the sheer scale of Modi’s triumph, the change in attitude among a sizeable proportion of the Muslim community is one of the most surprising outcomes of a vote where social and economic aspirations appear to have overridden other concerns.
With counting of votes cast for parliamentary seats still underway, data provided by the Election Commission showed that in constituencies where the population of Muslims is more than 20 percent, a BJP candidate looked set to win in nearly half.
Muslims account for about 15 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people, which means that - although a minority - they number some 175 million, making them the world’s third-largest Muslim population.
The vote count showed that the BJP and its allies were likely to win around 339 of the 543 parliamentary seats at stake in the election, far more than the halfway mark required to rule and sealing Modi’s bid to become prime minister.
Of the 102 constituencies where, according to polling group CSDS at least one in five voters are Muslims, Election Commission data showed that a BJP candidate had won or was leading the count in 47.
In the 2009 election, the BJP won only 24 of these seats.
Modi’s party was even heading for victory on Friday in two seats where more than half of the population is Muslim, and in 18 where more than a third of the voters are Muslims.
Many Muslims loathe the man now set to be the country’s next leader, blaming him for encouraging or at best turning a blind eye to a 2002 frenzy of bloodshed in Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time.
More than 1,000 people were slain in the rioting, most of them Muslims.
Modi maintains that he did all he could to quell the violence, and the Supreme Court found he has no case to answer.
His party denies that it has a bias against non-Hindus, but says it is opposed to giving unfair advantage to any community, a practice it describes as “appeasement” that the outgoing Congress party has long followed to win votes.
This month, as the election drew to a close, Modi ratcheted up rhetoric against illegal immigrants entering northeastern India from neighbouring Bangladesh, saying they should have their “bags packed” ready to be sent home should he win.
His comments raised alarm among the sizeable Muslim minority in Assam and West Bengal, some of whom felt he was targeting them on religious, not legal grounds, and the government in Bangladesh said it would resist any attempt at deportation.
Modi kept up his verbal offensive even after 41 Muslims were killed by suspected tribal militants in Assam in violence related to the election.
Yet during most of his campaign, Modi has sought to moderate his image, harping on his record of governance in industrial powerhouse Gujarat to promise economic growth and jobs after years of policy paralysis and corruption under Congress rule.
Syed Md. Khalid, a Muslim leader in West Bengal, said Modi had changed over the years and become more responsible.
“This is not a vote on communal lines. This is a vote for development and for jobs. We respect the people’s verdict and we think Modi will have to be a responsible leader,” Khalid said.
On the other side of the country in Ahmedabad, the largest city of Gujarat, Muslim businessman Salim Quadri agreed.
“We have seen Narendra Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat since 2001. I don’t think there is any need for any fear or apprehensions with Modi as prime minister,” he said.
“The only thing that worries Muslims is that they are already marginalised and Modi now should take steps to bring the community into the national mainstream.”
Yet in Juhapura, a Muslim township of some 400,000 in Ahmedabad, there was no sign of the celebrations over Modi’s victory that exploded elsewhere in the state.
TV channels showing live coverage of the results flickered in homes across the community, but most people went about their business in the sprawling district that many Hindus derisively call “Little Pakistan”.
Asif Pathan, a social activist in Ahmedabad, said the people of India had warmed to Modi’s promises of growth and development. Muslims hope he will stick to that, and not stray into divisive policies.
“He has said he wants to take everyone along. We would like to see that, but frankly we are not very confident,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sujoy Dhar in KOLKATA, and by Sanjeev Miglani in AHMEDABAD; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Mike Collett-White