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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

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.

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.

In a clinic down a small side road, the resident doctor adjusts his glasses as he reflects on what has become of his childhood friend. It makes no sense, Sudhir Joshi says. Young Narendra was so poor he had to leave school each day at recess to help his father serve customers down by the train station.

"I didn't know anything big was going to come out of him," he says, as patients flow ceaselessly into the waiting room. Like so many of them, Mr. Modi should have been chained to his fate by India's rigid caste hierarchy, but he refused to be held down. Dr. Joshi recalls his remarkable confidence at 13, when he decided to run for class representative: "Now, I have to win it." Which he did – "he convinced them all."

With six children, five of them boys, the family never had enough. His mother worked long hours as a maid and wasn't home to cook, so Mr. Modi learned to make parathas and dal over a smoky wood stove. He enjoyed cricket and acting in school plays, but took nothing lightly, according to his younger brother.

"Whatever games we would play as kids, Narendra bhai [brother] would have to be captain: He wouldn't settle for anything less," recalls Prahlad Damodardas Modi. "He always wanted to stand out and tried to get our attention. If we didn't listen, he would even beat me."

That rigid ambition pulled him closer to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a national, pseudo-paramilitary Hindu organization created in 1925 to build character as well as resist British imperialism and Muslim separatism. Its khaki-clad members hold morning drills and are often implicated in sectarian violence, along with other groups in the Sangh Paravar, a Hindu nationalist umbrella organization.

He would eventually earn a master's degree, but Mr. Modi dropped out at 17 after a year of college with Dr. Joshi, and took a two-year spiritual journey to the Himalayas. Almost five decades later, he remains a devout Hindu, rising early for yoga and prayers, and fasting regularly, even when campaigning.

Returning from his trek, he became a full-time organizer with the RSS, which was to evolve into the backbone of the BJP. (Not everyone in the party is Hindu, says Piyush Pandya, 25, a campaigner at the Modi rally, but "we feel closer to the BJP.")

The solitary life of an RSS propagandist provided much of the rigour that now serves him so well, but it led him to leave behind not just Vadnagar but a young wife. The marriage was arranged and never consummated, but Mr. Modi didn't even acknowledge it until he filed his national nomination papers.

A few years later, he disappeared in earnest. In 1975, as unrest spread across the country, the iconic Indira Gandhi, grandmother of current Congress candidate Rahul Gandhi, declared the infamous "emergency" that allowed her to postpone elections and arrest foes. With the RSS banned and its leaders behind bars, Mr. Modi went underground.

Vishnu Pandya, editor of the official RSS organ at the time, was among those arrested and remembers the young Mr. Modi as "not very knowledgeable," but enough of a zealot to provide inspiration. One day, as morale was withering in their cell, the prisoners received a visitor: Mr. Modi in disguise, boldly risking his freedom to talk strategy and lift their spirits.

"That was very dangerous," says Mr. Pandya, now 67 and a historian and columnist in Ahmedabad. "One of the others locked up in the cell – he said, 'He will be a leader one day, maybe even a chief minister.' "

But Mr. Modi's dedication didn't extend to his family. Prahlad says his famous brother didn't return to Vadnagar for 30 years, and even now sees their elderly mother exactly once a year, on her birthday.

"Before he became chief minister, he told us not to bother him, not to come asking for jobs," Prahlad says. "We didn't feel bad. We feel proud that he's been chosen."

Change India forever

Standing outside the hall in Gandhinagar, which is just north of Ahmedabad, Mr. Modi waits for his entourage to arrive before he goes in. The building is packed with loyal supporters. He allows himself a smile.

Formed in 1980, the BJP has had just one full term in power, which ended in 2004. A decade of Congress rule since has left the nation wounded and weary. Because of corruption and economic disorder, millions of Indians suffer from grotesque levels of poverty despite their nation's rising economic clout. With lives essentially untouched by the left-leaning government's welfare schemes, two-thirds of India's 1.2 billion people get by on less than a $2 a day.

Meanwhile, young voters are restless due to widespread unemployment, and the middle class, which is growing and well educated, expects more of politicians than endless corporate scandals that drain the state's coffers – two alone (involving the coal and wireless industries) cost the taxpayer almost $80-billion (U.S.).

Many have high hopes for Mr. Modi. They want him not only to rebuild the economy but to change India forever. It would take years, but their goal is to see the country with one-third of the planet's poorest people modernized on the same scale as China.

"Even if he can do 50 per cent of what he did in Gujarat, then we'll be better off," says Ramesh Chandak, chief executive officer of KEC International, which has six factories in various Indian states, as well as in Brazil and Mexico.

But the counterpoint to all that promise is the nagging fear that he will also bring to the national stage bitter, sectarian politics the BJP can't seem to escape.

Above all, Mr. Modi is known for being deliberate. He alone controls his message; bureaucrats and even members of his cabinet are rarely allowed to appear on TV or speak in public.

He is no less meticulous about his appearance. Bipin Chauhan, his tailor for 25 years, flips through pictures of fitting sessions on his smartphone, and says his biggest client prefers fine linens and cream is his favourite colour. He also has a knack for knowing how to stand out (wearing a jacket when no one else does, for example) – a fashion sense so distinctive that Mr. Chauhan now markets his own "Modi" line of kurtas. "His aura is very strong," he says of the chief minister, who once told him: "I don't compromise in my voice, my eyes, my clothes or my work."

This unwillingness to compromise frightens some people. After the riots, investigations by human-rights groups and the government repeatedly implicated the state. For two years, no one faced prosecution, and even then, the Supreme Court had to move the trials out of Gujarat.

Finally, a decade after the fact, 32 people were convicted, including a legislator who, even though her phone records showed she was at one riot, had become Mr. Modi's education minister.

Intimidation was a constant complaint. When renowned classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai filed a suit accusing the state of complicity, corporate donations to her troupe dried up and, at one point, a warrant was issued charging her with human trafficking in connection with its trips overseas.

Her passport was seized and she was required to apply at police stations to travel abroad. "The policemen would say, 'We know who you are. It's the pressure from the top,' " she recalls. "I was enemy number one."

Mr. Modi was cleared of any wrongdoing related to the riots, but he has neither apologized for his government's behaviour nor shown any great remorse for what happened. (He once called the resettlement centres created for Muslims who lost their homes "baby-making factories.")

Even so, the world took a dim view of his performance, and in 2005 the U.S. refused to issue him a visitor's visa. But now, as victory draws near, foreign diplomats flutter closer, and it seems highly unlikely that his election would spark any international backlash.

'Son of shah'

Although the BJP's sophisticated publicity machine is pitching the candidate as a moderate who has been endorsed by (a few) high-profile Muslims, he remains very much a product of the Hindutva (Hinduness) movement. India has a Muslim population of about 140 million, yet Mr. Modi – unlike other politicians in pursuit of votes – refuses to don a skullcap and uses allusions to India's ancient Muslim conquerors when vilifying his foes.

He accuses the rival Congress campaign of courting Muslims and calls its candidate shahzade, son of the shah, even though Rahul Gandhi's great-grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister. To Mr. Modi, the current power brokers in New Delhi are the "sultanate," and (a vegetarian like many Hindus) he is critical of government subsidies for mutton exporters.

When such comments are called into question, his BJP handlers (who spurned requests for an interview with Mr. Modi) insist that there has been no major unrest in Gujarat since 2002 and those seeking an apology are seeking a confession.

But critics suspect such a calculating cultivation of division may be a sign that danger lies ahead, given that the possibility of communal violence is ever-present. A clash late last year between Hindus and Muslims left 60 people dead and 40,000 displaced in Uttar Pradesh. A close confidant of Mr. Modi was recently censured by India's election commission after urging Hindus in the state, India's most populous, to get "revenge" by voting BJP.

Comments like this leave liberal Indians feeling queasy.

"I'm studying history, and we spend a lot of time comparing Modi and Hitler," says Neha Dasgupta, 22, after voting Congress in an affluent Delhi neighbourhood. "A lot of time, actually."

Even those with far greater political experience argue that the stakes are high. "This is a battle for the idea of India," says Shashi Tharoor, an author, former United Nations diplomat and now a cabinet minister in a Congress government facing defeat.

Mr. Tharoor's party and its coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, still promote social democracy and a pluralistic welfare state but are wheezing and dispirited after a decade in which their lack of conviction has led to corruption and excess.

The BJP, meanwhile, says it will provide reform, accountability and growth to all Indians, despite rising evidence from Gujarat that the growth may come at a high cost to the disadvantaged, such as poor farmers driven off their land by development.

A convincing win by the BJP and its allies would suggest that Indians are so frustrated with the status quo that they are willing to experiment with the economy even at the expense of pluralism.

Would this free Mr. Modi to experiment with more divisive issues as well? Some fear he would revive plans to build a Hindu temple on the site of an ancient mosque in Ayodya – which the pilgrims aboard the ill-fated train in 2002 had visited.

The BJP plays down such fears. People who have worked with him, and will do so if he takes office next month, say that having the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance form a stable government requires that Mr. Modi be a moderate economic reformer, as advertised.

When the BJP was last in power, it embarked on an infrastructure-building campaign and liberalized several industries – business people expect something similar again this time.

Mr. Modi has promised to re-examine, but not do away with, India's large welfare and subsidy schemes, as well as to work closely with its 30 chief ministers – only five of whom would be BJP even if Gujarat stays in the fold.

Advisers say his foreign-policy priorities would be to keep an eye on rival Pakistan, while rebuilding relations with neighbours such as Sri Lanka, rejuvenating India's participation in Asia's multilateral institutions and attracting investment by capitalizing on trips he has made to China and Japan.

Converts kidding themselves

Hard-core skeptics reply that the hopeful business elite, the frustrated middle class and the desperate poor who turn to Mr. Modi for purely economic reasons are kidding themselves. Former civil servant Harsh Mander says he will promise inclusive growth, but veer India toward capitalism and religious fundamentalism.

Mr. Mander, who worked closely with Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, has seen the divisions in Gujarat while fighting to have the victims of 2002 receive housing and compensation. He quit the civil service in the wake of the riots, and likens the current struggle to that of Mahatma Gandhi, whose vision of a diverse, secular India led to his assassination by a former member of the RSS.

"It is a new battle for India," Mr. Mander says. "If India doesn't get it right, the world will remain a place that is unacceptable."

And yet a naysayer who once compared Mr. Modi to Hitler in print has very much changed his mind. M.J. Akbar is the author of a widely respected biography of Nehru, a former spokesperson for a Congress prime minister and, perhaps most surprising of all, a Muslim. Yet he recently joined the BJP as a representative – even though he once accused its candidate of having an "intellect unleavened by reason, and untempered by humanism."

Mr. Akbar now says he wrote those words in anger after the riots, and argues that his former target has no choice but to rule on everyone's behalf.

"Modi is a man who delivers," he says over coffee in Delhi. "He knows his credibility will rest on what he can do to grow the economy. You cannot have prosperity without peace."

Fatima Bibi, however, has precious little of both. Now a widow (her husband had both arms broken during the riots and died of a stroke shortly after), she must care for a disabled son and support her family on the earnings from her tiny shop.

Yet she too seems resigned to the fact that the "Modi wave" may be unstoppable: "Even the Muslims are attracted to him."