VARANASI, India (AFP) - Indian election frontrunner Narendra Modi said he was "overwhelmed" Thursday by a huge show of support in Varanasi as the Hindu nationalist leader entered the contest to become the holy city's member of parliament.
The streets of the ancient city on the banks of the river Ganges were flooded by people keen to greet or at least glimpse the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader as he came to file his nomination papers.
"I feel overwhelmed by the love the people of Kashi (the ancient name of Varanasi) have shown me and I bow to this land and its traditions," said the 63-year-old at the nomination centre.
"It feels like Mother Ganga has called me here. The way a son goes back to his mother's lap, that's how I feel today." India's multi-phase general election began on April 7 but does not wrap up until May 12 when Varanasi and a host of other constituencies in the state of Uttar Pradesh go to the polls.
The contest in Varanasi is the most keenly watched of the election as Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the fledgling anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, is also standing.
Mr Modi has largely steered clear of advancing his party's Hindu nationalist agenda on the campaign trail, presenting himself as an economic reformer and sound administrator. But analysts say his decision to run from the sacred city of Varanasi is an effective way of burnishing the Hindu credentials of the chief minister of western Gujarat state.
He remains a deeply controversial figure for many Indians after more than 1,000 people - mainly Muslims - lost their lives in riots in Gujarat in 2002 shortly after he came to power.
Dressed all in white, he was flanked by his top aide Amit Shah, who was briefly banned from campaigning for inflammatory comments he made this month in an area hit by anti-Muslim riots last year.
The streets were a sea of saffron, the BJP's colour which is associated with Hinduism, with the mainly male crowd decked out in BJP caps or carrying party flags.
"This (Modi) wave has been turned into a tsunami by Mr Modi's supporters and this wave will wipe out" the BJP's rivals in Uttar Pradesh, Shah told reporters.
Polls show the BJP and its allies are likely to oust the ruling Congress party from power after results are announced on May 16, but will likely fall short of an outright majority. Analysts say Mr Modi is likely to win comfortably in Varanasi despite the competition from Mr Kejriwal. He is also running for a constituency in Gujarat but he is not expected to take up that seat if he wins both.