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...

backbencher - has a far lower profile.

EARNING HIS SPURS

Chouhan has long been an outsider among the political elite of New Delhi. When he was first elected to parliament in 1991 he didn't have a sweater to ward against the capital's winter chill, recalls a former associate Anurag Pateriya, who picked up a cheap one from a street market before they boarded the train.

Chouhan declined requests to be interviewed for this report.

Swimming below the national radar, he has transformed Madhya Pradesh from a poverty-blighted backwater, unleashing average annual economic growth of 10 percent over the past five years on the back of an unprecedented agriculture boom.

The explosion in farm output - agricultural growth in the state was 18 percent last year, the country's highest - has been fed by interest-free loans to farmers, a trebling of irrigation cover and a dramatic improvement in electricity supplies.

Out on a modern four-lane highway from the state capital Bhopal to the commercial city of Indore, the rural prosperity is hard to miss. Fields upon fields of soybeans, mustard and wheat stretch out, broken only by factories starting to come up on cleared land.

Children in uniforms scurry to school on bicycles provided by the state government, pedalling along new roads that are linked to remote villages. They will all be given a free lunch.

Nearby, expectant and new mothers collect free packets of soya, a mixture of rice and lentils and sweets, a Chouhan initiative to lift the state's infant and maternal mortality rates up to the national average.

"As a consequence of our pro-poor policies, we subsidise agriculture," said Manoj Srivastava, principal secretary to Chouhan, pointing out that 80 percent of the state's population is dependent on farming. "We make no bones about it - WTO or no - we are unabashedly doing it."

Chouhan has also introduced tax-friendly policies to attract industry to his state. Along the state highway, Indian firm Deepak Fastners is building Asia's largest plant to manufacture specialised nuts and bolts for car engines and aircraft. The first phase of the project is expected to cost some $38 million.

A NUMBERS GAME

Madhya Pradesh may still lag behind "vibrant" Gujarat, the neighbouring state run by Modi and a darling of investors.

But unlike his more famous colleague, Chouhan has walked a fine line between a secular image and sticking to the BJP's Hindu nationalist roots.

As assistants scurried about the chief minister's imposing colonial-era bungalow before his

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