NEW DELHI — Hindu nationalists won a resounding victory Thursday in state elections in western India, buttressing the political strength of Narendra Modi, the Hindu ideologue and polarizing figure whose supporters believe could become prime minister in 2014.
With almost all results counted, news reports from Gujarat state, where Modi has served as the state's chief minister since 2001, gave his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party 115 seats in the state assembly, two less than the 117 seats in the last election. Its closest rival, the Congress party, took 60 seats, one more than it held before.
"Indian voters are mature enough to understand that what's good for Gujarat is good for their future. The people of Gujarat have given a vote for good governance and development," Modi told cheering crowds that had gathered to celebrate his victory.
Analysts noted that Modi gave his victory speech in Hindi instead of the local language, in order to reach out to a larger national audience.
"My work will not stop, I will not tire in my effort to fulfill your dreams of development," he said as the wildly jubilant crowd broke into applause.
The Congress, which leads India's national government, has seen its position dramatically weakened in recent years, its reputation battered by clumsy political maneuvering, weak leadership and a seemingly endless stream of corruption scandals.
The BJP's top leadership has long presented Modi as a potential future prime minister. On Thursday, as supporters danced in front of party offices holding signs calling for Modi to take the country's top position, party officials dodged questions of his role in the next national elections, expected in 2014. Modi himself made clear he was thinking of the future.
"No need of looking behind, FORWARD! We want infinite energy, infinite courage, infinite patience..." said a quote on his personal Twitter site.
Behind Modi, though, lies one of the grimmest times in recent Indian history, when marauding mobs of Hindus killed and burned their way through Muslim neighborhoods in Gujarat in 2001, leaving more than 1,100 people dead.
While he was never charged with a crime, his many critics say Modi did little to stop the three months of rioting. Some have accused him of encouraging the violence.
Since then, Modi has been a deeply divisive figure in Indian politics, a man revered by supporters as a defender of Hinduism and reviled by opponents as an ideologue who has taken advantage of his state's religious divide.
While earlier campaigns highlighted his Hindu credentials, this year's avoided divisive issues. Gujarat has become a wealthy state over the past decade, a magnet for companies eager for business-friendly regulations. His campaign showcased his claims that he molded Gujarat's transformation, bringing industries, jobs, electricity and water in a country where power outages and joblessness are epidemic.
Certainly, Modi is the most powerful man in Gujarat. He runs nearly every major state ministry, and his face is omnipresent on posters. One TV station does little but broadcast adoring reports about him.
While Modi is a masterful politician – his latest campaign included high-tech holographic speeches that took his image to dozens of towns and villages at a time – it's unclear if he could become a national leader. His polarizing history would make it difficult for a Modi-led BJP to forge the alliances it would need.
"It's not going to be that easy for the BJP to settle on Modi" as a national leader, political analyst Zoya Hasan said on NDTV television. The party "desperately needs more alliances to create a government in 2014."
His political rivals, not surprisingly, insisted Thursday's victory did little to push him to national power, since the BJP did not dramatically increase its seats in the state parliament.
"This Gujarat election proves that it's not open skies for Narendra Modi," External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters.
The Gujarat elections were held Dec. 13 and 17, though official counting did not occur until Thursday.