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As Narendra Modi storms into India's election, a quiet alternative emerges

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The main opposition party's candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi is unquestionably the man to beat. PTI The main opposition party's candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi is unquestionably the man to beat. PTI
SummaryFive months before India's elections are due, there is an air of victory around Narendra Modi...

Five months before India's next elections are due, there is already an air of victory around Narendra Modi as he strides from one jam-packed rally to the next. And yet, a regional leader from his Hindu nationalist fold is quietly emerging as an alternative to lead the country.

The main opposition party's candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi is unquestionably the man to beat as the ruling Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, stumbles towards a vote that opinion polls show it will lose.

Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is tipped to win the election but it may not get an outright majority, and he may be unacceptable to potential coalition partners.

Ever since a 2002 spasm of sectarian bloodshed in the western Indian state he rules, Narendra Modi has been unable to shake off allegations that he carries a deep-seated bias against Muslims, a community that makes up 13 percent of the population.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a softly spoken and unassuming leader of the centre-right BJP, could be a more acceptable figure for would-be coalition allies.

This month, Chouhan notched up a thumping election victory in Madhya Pradesh, a sprawling central state with a population larger than that of France, becoming its chief minister for a third time.

"Shivraj Chouhan is no threat to Modi, he is not a challenger, but his huge victory raises the stakes," said Girija Shankar, a political consultant with close ties to the Madhya Pradesh administration. "On the scale of electability and performance, the message is - he is not any weaker than Narendra Modi."

Congress did something similar after elections 10 years ago - after wresting power from the BJP, its leader, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, declined the prime ministership. By naming unassuming technocrat Manmohan Singh as prime minister, she denied the opposition any chance of using her foreign roots to attack the government.

A farmer-turned-politician, Chouhan is similarly far less divisive than Modi.

There are other BJP leaders waiting in the wings for the premiership if minor parties that are expected to hold the key to power after the election insist on a prime minister other than Modi as the price for their support.

Among them are Lal Krishna Advani, a veteran of the party who is still seen as a contender despite his 86 years, as well as former government ministers Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. All three are virtually household names across India, and Chouhan - a former parliament

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