Hardline Modi set to be frontman of India's opposition party

PANAJI, India (AFP) - Controversial opposition politician Narendra Modi's hopes of becoming India's next prime minister could get a big boost this weekend when his party chooses its frontman for next year's general elections.

Mr Modi, the chief minister of the thriving western state of Gujarat for more than a decade, is widely expected to be named as head of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) election panel at a two-day meeting that begins on Saturday in the coastal state of Goa, despite opposition from some senior colleagues.

Mr Lal Krishna Advani, the 85-year-old veteran of the BJP who mentored Mr Modi is now opposed to his elevation due to what some party officials say is the Gujarat politician's arrogant style.

Party officials said Mr Advani called in "sick" and skipped a crucial meeting on Friday. But observers say he might relent and attend the last day of the conclave to symbolically validate Mr Modi's new role and show party unity.

Another senior leader, Ms Uma Bharti, is also not attending the meeting of some 300 party members. Ms Bharti had earlier expressed reluctance to support Mr Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, despite his rising voter popularity.

The Hindustan Times in a front-page article titled "Goa First Steps in Modi's March to Delhi" said the right-wing Hindu nationalist politician was gaining ground.

"The scales are tipping in favour of a clear picture that Narendra Modi will be the BJP's face in the run-up to the Lok Sabha (parliament) polls," the mass-circulation English daily said, reflecting similar views in other newspapers on Friday.

If Mr Modi is made head of the Hindu nationalist party's election campaign, he will be expected to canvass around the country, forge strategies to attack the left-leaning ruling Congress party and build support for being the BJP's candidate for prime minister.

But the ghosts of anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat just over a decade ago could be a stumbling block in Mr Modi's ambitions to lead India.

As many as 2,000 people - mainly Muslims - were killed during the month-long unrest, according to rights groups.

One of Mr Modi's former ministers was jailed for life for taking part in instigating the killings but several investigations have cleared the hardline politician of personal responsibility.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a senior BJP leader, said Mr Modi had shown his leadership qualities.

"Modi is a popular leader of the country and has proved his leadership with his performance," he said.

In March, the 62-year-old Modi was named a member of the BJP's parliamentary board, a party decision-making body.

Some observers expect a showdown between Mr Modi and Mr Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which is at the helm of the Congress party and is hoping to win a third straight term in office.

Congress has painted Mr Modi as a communally divisive figure as it seeks to retain the important Muslim vote in the elections that must be held in the first half of 2014.

Analysts said refraining from announcing Mr Modi as the party's prime ministerial candidate could be a safe political ploy that would protect the BJP politician in the event of electoral defeat.

"If the BJP wins, then he is the star and if the party loses, he can safely go back to Gujarat," said Mr Sanjay Kumar, a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, an independent think-tank in New Delhi.