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An Indian supporter of main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds a mask of their prime ministerial candidate their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at an election campaign road show rally by party senior leader Lal Krishna Advani in Ahmadabad, India, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (Ajit Solanki/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
An Indian supporter of main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds a mask of their prime ministerial candidate their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at an election campaign road show rally by party senior leader Lal Krishna Advani in Ahmadabad, India, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (Ajit Solanki/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

India votes: Will the real Narendra Modi step forward? Add to ...

Her face framed by a brilliant green scarf, Fatima Bibi sits on the concrete floor of her back-alley home and explains why she can’t vote for the front-runner in what may be the most pivotal election in India’s history. He is a fellow Gujarati, the pride of India’s thriving northwestern state, but in her eyes Narendra Modi is anything but a hero. She simply can’t forgive him for what happened 12 years ago.

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It began on Feb. 27, 2002, when a train carrying devotees of the Hindu god Ram home from a pilgrimage was attacked by angry Muslims and burst into flames in Ghodra, a city 130 kilometres east of Ahmedabad.

Investigators later ruled the fire, which left 58 passengers dead, accidental. But early the next morning, a mob marched into Ms. Bibi’s neighbourhood on the outskirts of this metropolis of almost seven million. Some in the crowd wore the khaki shorts favoured by Hindu militants, and carried cans of fuel, swords and printouts telling them where to find Muslim homes and businesses. “Say Ram!” they shouted.

Amid falling stones and rising chants, Ms. Bibi fled, like those around her. She managed to hide on a rooftop, but down the lane, her sister and young children came upon a police officer, who told them where buses were waiting to carry people to safety. Instead, the woman was surrounded by Hindus, Ms. Bibi says. “They hit her with [bamboo] lathis and cut her with swords and burned her in front of my eyes.” She weeps at the savagery.

The violence went on for weeks. Nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed, many of the women having been raped first, and 150,000 were driven from their homes.

Yet troops weren’t deployed until the worst was over. And the police? Ms. Bibi says one asked her: “Why did you do what you did in Ghodra? You have to pay.”

A few months before, a new chief minister had taken office in Gujarat: Narendra Modi.

Mr. Modi has held the post ever since, in large part because he is hailed as an economic wizard for bringing a wave of prosperity to his state. And now, as India approaches the midpoint of an election that stretches over five weeks, he is expected to be the next leader of the world’s largest democracy.

To his supporters, he is a self-made man well equipped to halt the corruption and dysfunction that many feel are holding the rest of India hostage. But others not only challenge the idea of Gujarat as the land of plenty, they can’t forget the bloodshed of 2002. To them, Mr. Modi’s continual anti-Muslim remarks suggest that he is unrepentant and there may be no one more dangerous to the future the nation.

Closing in on the prize

In the 47-degree heat of India’s summer furnace, a Bolero jeep carrying black-clad commandos glides to a halt in front of a screaming crowd just outside Gandhinagar, the Gujarati capital. Once its heavily armed occupants have taken up position, Mr. Modi, 63, steps from a second SUV wearing a bright white linen kurta that falls to his knees. Embroidered over his heart is a lotus, the symbol of the polarizing Hindu nationalist opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

His security cordon locks arms as the crowd surges forward, screaming in Hindi: “This time, it’s a Modi government!” Folding his thick hands in greeting, Mr. Modi peers through his rimless glasses at the supporters without smiling. But his stare is not of the moment – it’s as though he realizes that he is almost there.

A recent Pew Research Centre survey revealed that seven Indians in 10 want political change, and 63 per cent favour the BJP. The ghosts of 2002 – and all they represent – still haunt Mr. Modi, but almost all the polls show his party and its allies (India has been governed by coalitions since 1989) with a majority when the final count is in on May 16.

Barring a last-minute revival by the Congress incumbents, the world will see soon enough if his intention is simply to recast the country in the image of his home state or, as his critics fear, he will drive India away from the secular pluralism that has defined it since independence – and toward bitter division.

To anticipate what the future holds for the man, it may help to examine his past.

It starts in a sleepy city of 25,000: Vadnagar, where Mr. Modi grew up, is surrounded by dusty farmland in Gujarat’s northern hinterland – camels haul carts down narrow streets past packs of sleeping dogs, faded pink terraces and ancient houses, one with eyes painted above its carved wooden door.

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