NEW DELHI – As of 3:00 p.m., the B.J.P. appeared to have surpassed its previous tally of 117 seats in Gujarat, a clear victory for the party. Gujarat’s polarizing state leader, Narendra Modi, inched closer Thursday to becoming the leading political challenger to India’s dominant Gandhi family.
Mr. Modi appeared likely to be convincingly re-elected as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat under the banner of the nation’s leading opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. That would improve Mr. Modi’s chances of being selected as his party’s candidate for prime minister in national elections in 2014.
Mr. Modi campaigned on claims that he has presided over rapid economic growth while staying free of the taint of corruption that has affected many other state and national leaders. Questions about his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed have made him one of the most divisive figures in Indian politics.
Nitish Kumar, the powerful chief minister of Bihar, has promised to withdraw his support for the B.J.P. if it selects Mr. Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for 2014. That would reduce the party’s chances of gaining a majority in the national Parliament, but whether Mr. Kumar would follow through on his threat is uncertain.
Mr. Modi’s role in the 2002 riots has long been a concern for governments in the West. The United States, for instance, refuses to provide Mr. Modi with a visa. But as he continues to consolidate his power, more Western countries may rethink their refusal to talk with him in an official context. In October, Britain ended a 10-year diplomatic boycott of Mr. Modi when its high commissioner met with him for 50 minutes.
India’s religious, caste and regional differences have increasingly splintered the country’s politics into a complex array of regional players and leaders. The Bharatiya Janata Party has long advocated Hindu supremacy in hopes of achieving this dominance, with some of its leaders demonizing Muslims in hopes of uniting Hindus. But the party has been resisted by regional parties that advocate for certain castes and cultures, as well as by the Congress party, which still clings to Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a secular state in which religion plays a minimal role in public life.
Leaders of the B.J.P. said that Mr. Modi had solidified his place as one of India’s most important leaders, although top party leaders refused to speculate on whether he would be the party’s candidate for prime minister in 2014. “This shows the people’s confidence and trust in the B.J.P. and Narendra Modi’s leadership,” said Dhansukh Bhanderi, a top party official.
P. Chidambaram, India’s finance minister and a leader of the Congress party, said in a televised interview that he thought Congress had won a victory Thursday because Mr. Modi had not managed to expand his political dominance in Gujarat. “Congress is the winner,” Mr. Chidambaram said.
Outside a B.J.P. office in Gujarat, party members held signs before TV cameras that read, “CM 2012, Narendra Modi, PM 2014,” suggesting that they saw Mr. Modi’s victory in Gujarat as a prelude to a national victory in 2014.
Also on Thursday, it was announced that Congress had defeated the B.J.P. in state assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, a hilly state in the Himalayas. The victory was an important balm to Congress, which has been buffeted in recent years by corruption allegations and the rise of regional parties.
The election in Himachal was between two veteran political leaders who have traded control over the state between them for decades. Virbhadra Singh, 78, of Congress is now expected to become the state’s chief minister, a post he has already held five times. Prem Kumar Dhumal, 68, will resign after having served two non-consecutive terms as chief minister.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Haresh Pandya from Rajkot, Gujarat for http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/