The Bharatiya Janata Party finally bit the bullet on Friday and gave Narendra Modi a crack at the most important job in the country by naming him its PM candidate despite the bitter opposition of party patriarch LK Advani.
BJP president Rajnath Singh congratulates Narendra Modi after the party officially announced him as the prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections. (Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)
The anointment marks the biggest step yet in the remarkable career of the Gujarat chief minister who, as a young boy, served tea at his uncle's stall near Ahmedabad bus station and is still seen as an outsider in New Delhi's corridors of secrecy and power.
Projecting Modi is a calculated risk the BJP is taking; the party, out of power since 2004, figures that it stands to gain more from the leadership of the charismatic but polarising figure than it will lose by way of allies wary of associating with a man many still blame for the 2002 riots against Muslims in Gujarat.
It is also likely to be the final step in the leadership transition that has seen Advani, a former deputy PM and once a mentor to Modi, tossed aside in favour of his protégé.
"I seek the blessings of the people and I am sure the country will let the lotus bloom with new hope for a new direction," Modi said in his acceptance speech, referring to the flower that has been the BJP's symbol since it was formed in 1980. He becomes the party's third PM candidate, after Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2004 and Advani in 2009.
Party president Rajnath Singh had spent the past two days in hectic parleys trying to bring around the dissenters led by Advani and including the party's head in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj. Slowly, the anti-Modi camp melted away, but Advani stood firm.
The octogenarian leader, who harboured PM ambitions of his own, stayed away from the BJP's parliamentary board meeting that decided on Modi.
"I have conveyed to you last evening my anguish at your style of functioning," he wrote to Rajnath. "After this decision, I did not think it was proper for me to attend the meeting."
Advani had quit his party posts in June when Modi was appointed head of the BJP's poll campaign committee, but was then forced to climb down when the party stuck to its guns.
Modi's appointment was proposed by Rajnath and seconded by other leaders including Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma, who switched sides late in the day.
BJP insiders said that Modi's anointment was without strings attached, despite talk swirling earlier in the day that he would have to step down as Gujarat CM and hand over the campaign chief job to someone from the dissenters' camp.
After he had landed the PM candidacy, Modi went to see Advani, touching his feet in the traditional Hindu gesture of obeisance to elders. He had flown in from Ahmedabad after it became clear that the BJP's ideological patron, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was determined to push through his appointment. The deal was nudged along by a public show of support early in the day from two allies, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab.
Modi, who turns 63 next week, is wildly popular among the party's rank and file, and liked by industrialists who have feted his "can-do" approach. He has consistently topped responses in opinion polls asking the question "Who is the person best suited to be PM?" and is thought to command the respect of the middle class and urban youth.
Critics have pointed out that his sometimes authoritarian style is unlikely to work in coalition politics; some question whether Gujarat, a rich state, has really gained from his leadership, and point out that the state's growth has left minorities and the poor behind.
“Why should we be afraid of Modi? They should be afraid of us, " said Congress spokesperson, Renuka Chowdhury, while Information and Broadcasting minister Manish Tiwari took a dig at the RSS, calling them a "a Nagpur-based shadowy cabal of unaccountable geriatric gentlemen in period attire" who "rammed decisions down the BJP's throat".