The world’s largest democratic polls, in which 810 million people vote over five weeks from April, appeared to be all but over with a month of politicking to go, if India’s bookmakers were to be believed. Mumbai’s satta market, as the bookies are known, had the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate, Narendra Modi, as odds-on to head the largest party in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, and hence become the next prime minister, while making his young rival and leader of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, a rank outsider.

That Modi had been seen as a racing certainty for much of the election campaign was all the more remarkable considering that India’s prime minister-in-waiting has been a pariah in the west for more than a decade because of his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which at least 1,000 Muslims died, countless women and girls were raped, up to 200,000 people displaced and thousands of homes, businesses and mosques destroyed. As chief minister of the state, he was accused of failing to stop the pogrom—and even of fomenting the looting and slaughter. Modi has always denied any complicity in the riots, which followed the death of 59 Hindu activists on a train in Godhra, but has refused to apologise.

Modi has been banned from the US since 2005 and is still officially barred, though Washington has scrambled to build bridges since he became the frontrunner in the Indian elections. However, last year Dr Katrina Lantos Swett, an influential adviser to the US government on international religious freedom, urged President Obama and Congress to maintain the visa ban on Modi.

Britain ended its own decade-long boycott in 2012 to similar criticism of its rush to rehabilitate Modi for business advantages. Prof Shiv Visvanathan, an anthropologist involved in the legal campaign against Modi, said that the timing was surprising. ‘If they had waited a bit longer, the UK’s record on human rights would have been better preserved,’ he said.

KC Singh, a former Indian diplomat writing in Outlook, drily noted in 2012: ‘His lack of contrition, though troublesome, is outweighed by his rising profile as a possible BJP prime ministerial candidate.’ Modi was so delighted at the British decision that he posted the UK government’s statement on his website even before London had been able to distribute it.

The eagerly anticipated elections have been seen by some analysts as the most important since independence in 1947. Polls have consistently put the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on course for a sweeping win over the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), dominated by the Congress party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Polling in late February by the Pew Research Centre, a US thinktank, found that the BJP’s lead over Congress was running at more than three to one among voters in 15 major states, with 70% of Indians unhappy with how the government was tackling problems such as corruption, unemployment and price rises. Pew’s report, Indians Want Political Change, found the BJP was significantly ahead across India, most emphatically in the north (by a margin of 74% to 12%) but by significant margins in the west (54% to 21%) and south (59% to 18%). Even in the east, where West Bengal elected a communist government for 34 years, the BJP led by 57% to 30%. Other parties averaged only 11% of the vote.

This dissatisfaction with the state of affairs was ‘remarkably widespread’, Pew found, and reflected across other societal cleavages, such as young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural.

There are a number of reasons why the voters seem so likely to sweep the BJP to power—30 years since the party won just two Lok Sabha seats in its first elections. They include the economic record of Modi, his political machine’s distinct edge over Congress in campaigning and fundraising, and his outsider status, which is particularly helpful when running against the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a government beset by scandals and allegations of corruption. Above all, however, Modi has benefited from Hindutva—the assertion of Hindu supremacy that found its most terrifying expression in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

India’s election campaign spending is predicted to reach 300bn rupees ($5bn)—the highest level in the world after the US. As the South China Morning Post noted, the politicking will in itself give a boost to the sluggish economy, which has been heading for its longest slump since the 1980s after another year of growth below 5%. India’s advertising industry will get an injection of some $800m alone. ‘This election spending largesse will help to boost Indian consumption expenditure over the second quarter of 2014, but this will be a temporary spike,’ said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

The less benign interpretation of this infusion of cash is that it reflects the huge amount of bribery and vote-buying that is still a feature of Indian elections. Candidates are only allowed to spend 7m rupees ($115,000) to campaign for a seat but the cost of rallies, fuel and media coverage makes the true cost nearer 10 times this figure, so ingenious methods of bribing voters have been developed to circumvent the tighter rules on election spending, such as giving out mobile phone credit and envelopes of cash being delivered with the morning paper. The Economic Timesreported that over the last three years more than $32m had been seized by election authorities from politicians, with cash found in helicopters, milk tankers and even hearses, a former election commissioner said. The chief election commissioner, VS Sampath, said the use of ‘money power’ was a concern in the run-up to polls and promised that flying squads and video-surveillance teams would be used to curb vote-buying, The Times of India reported.

The Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies noted that Modi had set the pace in this free-spending campaign by pushing outside the BJP’s northern heartland into the south. ‘They started much before, and they are also focusing on states where they are traditionally not strong. They are leaving no area untouched,’ said N Bhaskara Rao, CMS chairman. Modi has widened the fundraising net to pay for this, with wealthy expatriate Indians in Hong Kong and Singapore targeted by a special team led by a former Citibank investment banker.

Much of Modi’s campaign has rested on his record as chief minister of Gujarat, where ‘Modinomics’ is credited with creating the conditions for faster growth in the northern state than the rest of India since he came to power in 2001. But Maitreesh Ghatak, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, and Sanchari Roy, of  the University of Warwick, have questioned the claim that Modi has been responsible for anything exceptional. Writing in the Guardian, they argue that Maharashtra, to name just one, closely matched Gujarat’s growth rate and both were eclipsed by the stellar performance of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, which went from an annual growth rate 2.7 percentage points below the national average in the 1990s to 1.3 points above it in the following decade. In terms of the human development index (a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income), Gujarat has been above the all-India average but Kerala has been the ‘star performer by a distance’. Similarly, the most successful poverty reduction of the past decade was in Tamil Nadu, not Gujarat.

Modi’s claims to have created a new middle class in Gujarat have been dismissed by Congress. One minister, Manish Tiwari, said: ‘In reality in the past 11 years the BJP has created a special class that is a new cult of “crony capitalists” in the state …  by giving benefits of lakhs of crores [billions of dollars] of rupees to “friendly industrialists” in the name of industrialisation.’

Though making much of his economic credentials, Modi has also positioned himself as an outsider—the son of achaiwallah, or tea seller, in contrast to the storied Nehru-Gandhi clan (though the Indian Express threw doubt on Modi’s self-mythologising claims to have carried tea to railway passengers as a boy in the small town of Vadnagar, Gujarat).

Manmohan Singh’s government had barely taken office when it became embroiled in corruption allegations. The Daily Telegraph said: ‘The government has been hit with new corruption claims almost every day in the last week amid a growing public outcry.’ Four years on, the Guardian reported: ‘The Congress-led government has been battered by a series of corruption scandals, soaring prices of basic foodstuffs and a flagging economy. Furthermore, [Rahul] Gandhi has so far been unable to evolve a coherent and effective message to counter an impression of inexperience.’

One shattering blow to the prospects of Congress has been its inability to maintain the loyalty of a core constituency: those engaged in farming in some form, who amount to about half of the population. A third of farmers were likely to vote for the BJP, nearly twice the percentage declaring for Congress, the Mint business newspaper reported. The survey, carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies for a farmers’ association, found about 30% of 5,350 farmer households surveyed across 18 states were for the BJP and only 17% for Congress. The most worrying aspect of this for Congress was the survey’s finding that many farmers had not even heard of the ruling party’s vote-winning welfare programmes aimed at alleviating rural poverty, such as loan write-offs and agricultural insurance schemes, far less benefited from them.

With Congress facing heavy defeat at the polls, the Financial Times reported that some veteran MPs had been unwilling to run, citing poor health, lack of funds or old age. Unfortunately for Congress, the ones most determined to run are often those most tarnished by corruption allegations. ‘The Congress crew, it seems, is deserting the sinking ship,’ it said.

As a Hindu nationalist, Modi has taken a tough line on perceived Chinese expansionism. Speaking in Pasighat, in the north-east Arunachal Pradesh state, near India’s disputed Himalayan border with China, he warned Beijing to abandon its territorial ambitions, the Wall Street Journal reported. ‘No power on earth can snatch away Arunachal Pradesh from India,’ Modi said. ‘I swear by this land that I will not let this nation be destroyed, I will not let this nation be divided, I will not let this nation bow down … China should give up its expansionist attitude and adopt a development mindset.’

However, Modi has carefully balanced strident attacks on Beijing’s assertiveness in the region, calibrated with a Hindu nationalist’s eye to the domestic gallery, with a more modulated stance on the international stage. Writing in theIndian Express, Sanjaya Baru, of the UK’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, likened Modi to Shinzo Abe, Japan’s nationalist prime minister. ‘While talking tough, Modi should be expected to do business with China. On his visit to Beijing in 2011, when China received him with the courtesy due to a head of government at a time when Western governments were refusing to even give him a visa, Modi invited Chinese companies to invest in India.’

Just as Abe has become less conciliatory towards Japan’s neighbours over his country’s record during the second world war, so has Modi embraced the Hindutva ideology, which seeks to define India in terms of Hindu values and rejects the secularism that was a founding principle of the state. One aspect of this is the increasing intolerance of cultural works that have offended conservative Hindu sensibilities. In February Penguin Books India agreed to withdraw and pulp all copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History, by American academic Wendy Doniger, after the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) filed a case against the publisher. Their protests, backed by the implicit threat of a visit by a hostile mob if their requests are not met, have been very successful at reshaping the cultural arena, such as forcing the cancellation last year of a screening in Chandigarh of a film about India’s leading modern artist, MF Husain, by French film-maker Laurent Brégeat. Husain himself spent his last years in exile, hounded by what the Guardian called the ‘unceasing Hindu rightwing vendetta’.

This rising tide of chauvinism is seen at its worst in Hindu-Muslim sectarianism. Communalism, as it is known in south Asia, has existed in India for more than thousand years, as attested to by early scholars such as Al-Biruni and Ibn Battuta. Gujarat, in particular, has a history of clashes—in a 2003 Heidelberg University paper entitled Communal Riots in Gujarat: The State at Risk?, Christophe Jaffrelot said that between 1970 and 2002, Gujarat experienced 443 Hindu-Muslim riots and one in 1969 in Ahmedabad, which left some 630 dead, was the worst incident since partition. The state had the most riot victims per inhabitant in India. However, the 2002 pogrom marked a disturbing high-water mark for organised violence against the Muslim minority.

Jaffrelot wrote: ‘The Hindu, though representing an overwhelming majority, often perceive of the Muslims as a “fifth column” threatening them from within Indian society. And the Hindu nationalist parties, which have codified this ideological pattern, employ it for electoral means in the course of campaigns laying the ground for the outbreak of violence. These parties have, in fact, learned to mobilise Hindus against Muslims on the basis of real or presumed “sacred” issues since the emergence of electoral politics in colonial times. Their goal is to provoke such kinds of riots in order to polarise the electorate along the religious cleavage more effectively.’

In its report, ‘We have no orders to save you’, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted: ‘The groups most directly responsible for violence against Muslims in Gujarat include the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the ruling BJP, and the umbrella organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [National Volunteer Corps or RSS], all of whom collectively form thesangh parivar (or “family” ) of Hindu nationalist groups.’

Modi began his political career as a pracharak, or volunteer activist of the RSS, and went on to serve as BJP general secretary for six years. His appointment as chief minister of Gujarat in 2001 was regarded as a huge victory for the RSS. Jaffrelot argues that the BJP and its allies developed a strategy from 1989 of provoking anti-Muslim riots before elections. And there was indeed a sweeping win for the BJP in elections that followed the 2002 riots with unseemly haste (Modi closed refugee camps to convince the electoral commission that conditions were suitable for voting). Gujarat became a stronghold of the BJP.

In March 2010 Modi was questioned for 10 hours by an inquiry over alleged collusion in the 2002 pogrom, the BBC reported. Modi’s alleged role has never been established, with the inquiry finding that there was insufficient evidence. No further action was taken against him and he considered himself vindicated. Indeed, in 2012 he refused to apologise for the riots (‘One only has to ask for forgiveness if one is guilty of a crime’), though after his lack of remorse led to further bad press he later expressed ‘anguish, agony … the absolute emptiness one felt on witnessing such inhumanity’.

The Gujarat government always maintained that the violence was spontaneous and could not have been contained. However, in 2012 a former minister and aide to Modi was convicted of murder and jailed for 28 years for her leading role in the 2002 violence. Witnesses described Maya Kodnani, later appointed minister for women and child development, handing out swords to Hindus in the riots.

And in 2011 Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior police officer in the Gujarat intelligence bureau in 2002, alleged in a sworn statement to the supreme court that Modi had deliberately allowed the anti-Muslim riots. Bhatt said that in a meeting the night before the riots, Modi told officials that the Muslim community needed to be taught a lesson following the attack on the train in Godhra.

At the height of the carnage, Modi spoke of the ‘natural and justified anger of the people’, declaring: ‘The five crore[50 million] people of Gujarat have shown remarkable restraint under grave provocation,’ referring to the Godhra train attack. At first, he claimed that the deaths on the train were a ‘pre-planned violent act of terrorism’ (a judge decided in 2005 that the evidence did not support claims of an arson attack). This is in keeping with a BJP narrative of nearly one billion beleaguered Hindus fighting a traitorous, jihadi Muslim minority. HRW quotes The Hindu observing that the ‘saffronised police found a common cause with the criminals to “punish” the minorities … insiders in the Bharatiya Janata Party admit that the police were under instructions from the Narendra Modi administration not to act firmly.’

Witnesses to the attacks in Ahmedabad told HRW: ‘Police gunfire paved the way for the violent mobs. Marching in front of the mobs, the police burst tear-gas shells and aimed and fired at Muslim youth seeking to defend their families and their homes.’

What seems clear is that the awful events of February and March 2002 were far from spontaneous. According to Jaffrelot: ‘The arrival of the [Godhra victims’] bodies at the Ahmedabad station was broadcast on television, causing considerable agitation among the Hindus … The following day, the VHP organised the shutdown of the city (bandh) with the support of the BJP. This mobilisation established the conditions for a Hindu offensive in Ahmedabad.

‘The clashes in Gujarat could not have spread so quickly and taken on such proportions unless they had been orchestrated by well-organised actors and the attackers’ plan had been prepared prior to the events in Godhra … the VHP bandh degenerated into a well-tuned orgy of violence: nothing was left to chance; it was a far cry from the spontaneous rioting Modi later described to excuse the Hindus.’ HRW noted: ‘Despite the state’s claims that police were simply overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Hindu mobs—often numbering in the thousands—evidence collected by the media, Indian human rights groups and Human Rights Watch all point to state sponsorship of the attacks.’

The term ‘mob’ gives the impression of something chaotic and spontaneous but Jaffrelot describes lorryloads of disciplined men in a uniform of khaki shorts and saffron headbands being driven to Muslim neighbourhoods and directed with military precision over mobile phones and with state logistical support (eg to deliver the gas canisters used to blow up properties after looting). Army units were often prevented from intervening, while police either collaborated or stood aside.

The barbarity of the Hindu mobs defies belief. Ayub Qureishi, a survivor at a relief camp, told Outlook: ‘They snatched my seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son and set them on fire before my eyes. The look in my children’s eyes moments before they perished is something that I now have to live with for the rest of my days.’

HRW found that the Gujarat riots had set a new standard for violence against women. ‘I have never known a riot which has used the sexual subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of violence as in the recent mass barbarity in Gujarat,’ said one expert. According to Jaffrelot: ‘Entire families were electrocuted in their houses, which were first flooded by the murderers. Children were forced to drink kerosene before a match was set to their mouths. Foetuses were cut from the bellies of pregnant women and held up to see. Women, again, were gang raped before being mutilated and burned alive before their children’s eyes.’

There was nothing random about how victims were selected either. In what amounted to ethnic cleansing (some districts had not a single Muslim after the riots), Outlook reported: ‘VHP volunteers have also been making the rounds of professional institutions and universities, seeking the names and addresses of Muslim students … Some government sources say VHP members have drawn up lists of government departments (for example, the Food Corporation of India) and their allied agencies, and identified “undesirables” and their addresses.’ Ehsan Jaffrey, a former Congress MP, was one of the countless victims burned alive.

The death toll has never been properly established: the figure often quoted is that more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The government told parliament in 2005 that 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, 223 more people reported missing and another 2,500 injured. However, Time put the figure as high as 2,500 dead.

Perhaps the most worrying conclusion of the rise of Modi to putative leader of the world’s largest democracy is not that the Indian authorities have not held him properly to account but that his role in the Gujarat pogrom in fact became the launchpad for his national ambitions. It could be argued that Modi oversaw the ‘the demise of a culture of relative tolerance.’ That the politician most closely associated with the greatest stain on the country’s conscience in recent times has been helped by this link is deeply troubling for Indians – and the entire Commonwealth.

‘Whatever our religion or creed, we are all one people,’ Nehru said in 1947, going further in 1961 to demand ‘a secular state in India … which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities.’ But Nehru’s dream of a nation awakening at the midnight hour to freedom, of becoming a secular, democratic beacon for the world, is vanishing in the harsh light of the Hindu nationalists’ impending triumph. India suddenly looks like a tough place to be a member of a minority.