Indirapuram, Uttar Pradesh: In a dusty fairground adjacent to a doric-styled retail emporium on the far outskirts of Delhi, a saffron-coloured crowd of 50,000 roars for its new Hindu champion, Narendra Modi. He is the 63-year-old former chaiwala (tea seller) who is the hot favourite to become India’s next prime minister, and he has just been flown by helicopter to yet another rally in a marathon seduction of the country’s 814 million voters.
Many in this crowd have come down from the high-rise apartment towers that surround the venue. They are the lucky ones counted among India’s 300-million-strong middle class and are Modi’s core constituency.
Many more, who cannot yet afford to live in this neighbourhood, have been bussed in by organisers from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People’s Party, and are proudly daubed in an array of Modi-for-PM paraphernalia that includes hats, scarves, face masks, T-shirts, flags and garlands.
Fed up with the Indian National Congress that has governed India for a decade – the mega-scams, the bloated welfare schemes and the famously dynastic Gandhi family that has ruled the party for most of the past 70 years – Mr Modi’s supporters believe their country has seen better days.
The growth rate has halved, the budget deficit has doubled, the rupee has fallen to undignified lows – and people are hankering for someone capable enough to push the faltering economy back on track and lift living standards.
''Bharat Mata ki Jai,'' boomed Mr Modi from a dais festooned with floral bunting: Hail Mother India. The massive crowd that has been waiting for hours in the heat is at fever pitch.
Since 2001 the pro-business Mr Modi has been chief minister of the north-western coastal province of Gujarat, an industrial powerhouse that has enjoyed strong growth rates and above-average living standards.
A teetotal vegetarian who rises daily at 5am to do yoga and meditate, Mr Modi openly projects a proud brand of Hinduism, a fact underlined by his decision to run for Parliament not in his home state of Gujarat but in Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu sites on the banks of the Ganges River.
Mr Modi has also never quite shaken off charges that in 2002 he allowed Hindu rioters to attack Muslim neighbourhoods in Gujarat, resulting in the deaths of more than 1000 Muslims. The riots were triggered by a fire aboard a train in the eastern Gujarat district of Godhra that killed 59 Hindu pilgrims and that police blamed on local Muslims.
Mr Modi has consistently refused international demands he apologise for the riots, and insists he did all that he could to stop the violence. And instead of ignoring Congress accusations that he will split the country along sectarian lines if he becomes prime minister, he throws the charges right back at the party and its leadership.
''Madam Sonia [Gandhi] has already divided people on the lines of religion, and attempted to divide those who give their life for mother India,'' growled Mr Modi from the dais. ''Congress wants to hear communal words from Modi, so, that they can claim themselves secular.''
In the flesh, Mr Modi projects an easy assurance before the crowd. He mixes humour and Sanskrit aphorisms with an inspiring rhetoric that fuels the crowd’s aspirations for a better future.
Unlike his 43-year-old Congress opponent Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the grandson of India’s first female prime minister Indira Gandhi, Mr Modi’s campaign relentlessly reminds voters he is one of them.
He is the son of a tea-stall owner born into a low-caste family, and his personal story emphasises a connection with the common man and a deep commitment to traditional Hindu philosophy.
His basic political vision was shaped through his teenage involvement with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which means National Volunteer Organisation and is commonly referred to as the RSS, a hardline Hindu nationalist movement.
Typical of the Modi supporters in the crowd is 32-year-old Sandeep Mudgal, a mathematics graduate who left his job as a software developer seven years ago to work full-time for the BJP. His focus in this election campaign has been on the 2.3 million registered voters in the local Ghaziabad electorate, where the BJP candidate is former army chief and possible new defence minister V. K. Singh.
''One of the things we’re doing is advertising a toll-free number asking people to call if they want to become campaign volunteers. When people call the number, they get an SMS that directs them to an online registration process. We’ve had 90,000 calls in this [electorate],'' Mr Mudgal says.
He explains Mr Modi’s momentum by pointing to his record as chief minister in Gujarat, what he calls the ''Gujarat miracle''.
During Mr Modi’s 10 years as chief minister, Gujarat has grown an average of 10 per cent a year, and ranks fifth in terms of per capita income, and he slashed red tape to attract manufacturing giants, such as Ford, Suzuki and Indian car maker Tata Motors.
''He chases companies, he creates jobs, he encourages prosperity and, most of all, he wants other people to be like him and work hard to lift themselves up,'' Mr Mudgal says.
''In Gujarat the water is clean and the electricity runs 24 hours a day. That’s a model for the rest of the country. We’re a big country, but we’re not fulfilling our potential.''
Mr Mudgal admits the Gujarat riots have been a problem for Mr Modi, but he personally believes Mr Modi’s role in allowing Hindus to attack Muslims has been horribly exaggerated. ''Most of the stories you read in the media are not true. Modi was not the bad guy. I’m not anti-Muslim, and neither is he.''
He nevertheless conceded that not many among India’s 138 million Muslims would be thinking about voting for Mr Modi. ''Look, the main thing is, India comes first, everything else comes second.''
Samyogita Tyagi, a 40-year-old engineer who is the mother of two daughters and owns a construction business, says she trusts Mr Modi like a close member of her family. ''That’s how much I think he cares about our country. I admire his leadership qualities, that’s what India needs. He has a vision for one nation, one India, favouring neither caste nor religion.''
Others in the crowd such as retired civil servant Abhishek Singh have no qualms about celebrating Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist credentials.
''I’m a Hindu nationalist, so why would I be worried if he is? Hindu nationalism means preserving and protecting our wonderful Hindu culture. Modi’s a patriot, he’s a nationalist and he’s ambitious for this nation,'' Mr Singh says.
''I think of India as being like Israel. We’re surrounded by countries that are our enemies. We have Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Sri Lanka - we need a strong man who is not afraid to stand up for this country.''
According to research commissioned by The Times of India and conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a survey of 250,000 people throughout the country indicated the No.1 issue for voters was better job opportunities, perhaps the most significant factor driving Modi’s momentum.
''We see him as someone with a proven record in delivering jobs, in delivering economic growth,'' says Shashank, a 32-year-old father of two who works as an IT engineer. ''What India needs most is economic growth, and the model for that is home state of Gujarat. We need to make the whole of India like Gujarat.''
The next-most-important issue for voters was drinking water, followed by better roads, better public transport and better supply of electricity. ''Of course, electricity and water are very important,'' Shashank says. ''But first we need the economy to get moving, then those things will follow. That’s the Gujarat model.''
Although voting begins on Monday in the north-eastern province of Assam, exactly what Mr Modi will promise is unknown, with the BJP still fussing over its platform and yet to release its manifesto to voters. Media reports suggest he will unveil a ''rainbow development strategy to build a vibrant Brand India''.
Unlikely to put a figure on the number of jobs he expects to create, Mr Modi will promise massive infrastructure development, including bullet trains in 100 cities, new housing for the poor, and an expansion of the world-class Indian Institutes of Technology network. Other items on his list are expected to be plans to invest heavily in health and agriculture development, and reforms to simplify India’s notoriously complex bureaucracy.
With the last day of voting not until May 12, this election campaign still promises a few surprises and – despite the polls and the overweening exuberance of the BJP followers – Indian voters can take unexpected directions.
In the 2004 election, the BJP was brimming with similar levels of confidence, but it was reigning Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi who ended up the kingmaker.
The story India's leadership contender Narendra Modi appeals to middle class masses first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.