SANAND, GUJARAT // Gujart's chief minister was hoping that his track record of fostering economic development will overshadow allegations that he was behind riots that killed more than 1,000 people as elections began yesterday.
The first phase of voting began in the state's industrial heartland, Sanand, known as the motor city and a fitting place for Narendra Modi to seek his fourth term as chief minister. He has been running on a platform that boasts his economic successes, including luring Tata Motors to the state where it manufactures the world's cheapest car, the Nano.
Yesterday, more than 18 million people voted to elect 87 legislators of the 182-member state legislature. The second and final phase the election will be held on Monday. A win for Mr Modi will all but assure that he will the run for prime minister with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in national elections in 2014.
Mr Modi claims to have delivered unprecedented economic growth to the state. However since he was first elected chief minister in 2001, Gujarat's economy grew by 8.68 per cent, roughly on par with states of Haryana, Bihar and Orissa. Mr Modi commands enormous support among the business community.
Tara Chand, 63, a businessman who manufactures and sells cloth in Sanand, said he voted for the BJP because of Mr Modi's economic policies.
"He streamlined the process for getting loans for small businesses like mine," Mr Chand said. "Roads, the Nano factory, he delivered on all fronts. For us, this is how the state should run."
Ghanchi Iqbal Ibrahim, 26, cast his vote yesterday across the motorway from the Nano factory, where he works as a contractor for Tata providing labour for transportation of spare parts.
"The factory came, the roads improved, we have a better water supply," Mr Ibrahim said about the improvements made since Mr Modi was in office. "Some of the young men, like me, who were unemployed got jobs."
The Nano factory has come to symbolise the sort of business-friendly government that Mr Modi advocates. In a country where corporations must contend with bureaucratic red tape, pay bribes and struggle with farmer protests and workers unions, Mr Modi smoothes the business path with income tax incentives for companies that build factories. The state also provides a reliable power supply - unlike the rest of India.
Mr Modi secured the contract to host the Nano factory from West Bengal after protests against land acquisitions to build the factory in Singur in West Bengal that left 14 people dead in 2007. The day Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Morots announced they were going to close their factory in West Bengal, Mr Modi offered Mr Tata huge tracts of land and incentives including access to the two ports. In 2008, Tata Motors moved to Gujarat and the plant in Sanand was constructed and production began in 14 months, a record in India. By 2010, the first Nano car rolled out of Gujarat.
"Modi kept his promise. He did a lot for Gujarat," said Mr Ibrahim, who dropped out of graduate school to start his contracting business.
However, not everyone saw Mr Modi as an economic mastermind and some were determined to vote him out of office. Pathan Zakir, 22, who walked two kilometres to cast his vote yesterday, said he remained unemployed after several applying several times at the Nano plant.
"When they set up the plant, I thought I would get a job. I was ready to do anything, because they had promised to give jobs to all the villagers around here. Only those who were educated got jobs, not us," said Mr Zakir, who dropped out of school after grade nine.
Mr Modi's main opponent hasn't been named, but will be running with the Congress party. The Congress has said Mr Modi's economic successes are overblown and accused him of stoking religious tensions in the state between Hindus and Muslims. The most serious accusation facing Mr Modi stem from riots in 2002. Human rights activists and Congress politicians have said Mr Modi and other BJP members looked the other way as mobs killed and burnt their way through Muslim neighbourhoods in Gujarat, leaving more than 1,000 people dead.
Congress politicians have also said his economic strategies ignore Muslims and that a lack of Muslim candidates in the BJP for this election was proof of Mr Modi's pro-Hindu politics.
Nirmala Sitaraman, the BJP spokesperson, defended the party, saying that candidates were picked for their "winnability factor".
"Political parties, especially the BJP decide on candidates after an elaborate look at their constituencies to see who will be a potential winner," said Ms Sitaraman.
Analysts say that the decision not to field any Muslim candidates was a mistake for Mr Modi and the BJP. Anil Bairwal, with the New-Delhi based non-profit Association for Democratic Reforms, said Mr Modi missed an opportunity to bring communities together and distance himself from politics of prejudice.
"Particularly when the state is prone to communal riots, there should be confidence building to assuage voters but by not giving any Muslim candidates a chance speaks of the communal politics there."