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Gujarat will hold a potentially game-changing vote on Thursday that could help decide whether Chief Minister Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, becomes India's next prime minister.
If, as many polls predict, Modi wins a fourth term as chief minister of the state, he is expected to project himself as the presumptive prime ministerial candidate for his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a general election due in 2014.
Gandhi's ruling Congress party has declared that he will be the face of its election campaign but has stopped short of saying he would become prime minister if the party was re-elected for a third term. Nevertheless, he is widely viewed as the party's top candidate for premier.
While analysts warn there is no certainty that either man will become their party's nominee for the top post, many in India are already talking about a potential Modi vs Gandhi clash in 2014 that would pit the charismatic but controversial chief minister against the heir to the country's first family.
Whoever becomes prime minister will take the helm of Asia's third-largest economy at a critical juncture in India's history as it tries to lift millions out of deep poverty and make the leap to become a global economic power.
Gujaratis are voting in a staggered election, with the second vote on Dec. 17. The results will be published on Dec. 20.
The margin of Modi's victory will help determine whether he wins his party's backing to lead the election-year charge. Analysts agree that Modi, 62, would be a formidable foe for the Congress party if he can triumph over both BJP infighting and fears within the party and its allies that he is too divisive a figure to take on the dynasty that has ruled India for most of the post- independence era.
Critics accuse Modi of not having done enough to stem riots that killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, in Gujarat in 2002, an accusation he denies. His supporters point to the economic boom he has presided over in the western state since first coming to power in 2001.
"Chief minister Narendra Modi has a solid track record of over a decade to flaunt. Rahul has no experience of running a government. His biggest asset is his surname," a minister in Modi's cabinet told Reuters on condition of anonymity.