By Frank Jack Daniel and Manoj Kumar
MUZAFFARNAGAR, India (Reuters) - Manoj Balyan wants Narendra Modi to become India's next prime minister when results of a general election are released next month, and not because of the pro-business opposition leader's record as a credible economic manager.
Instead, the property broker and village chieftain is drawn to Modi's Hindu nationalist side, believing the candidate will strip privileges from India's minority Muslim population.
"With Modi taking office, Muslims will automatically feel the pressure. They will not dare to raise their voice," said Balyan, 42, to nods of approval from a group of friends.
Such views are common in settlements around the sugarcane belt of Muzaffarnagar in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which was hit by deadly religious strife last year.
The election is spread out over five weeks, with the last day of polling on May 12. It was the turn of around 130 million voters across the country, including in New Delhi, on Thursday.
Two police officers were killed in an election-related attack by Maoist militants in the eastern state of Bihar. But by the end of the day there had been no reports of major violence during polling in Muzaffarnagar, where Modi's popularity is running high and Muslims are worried about their future.
For many of the 815 million registered to vote, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) represent a promise of better governance, industrial growth and job creation.
But Modi, 63, is tainted by accusations that he encouraged or turned a blind eye to Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat, the state he has governed for 13 years. He has denied the charges and the Supreme Court has said there is not enough evidence to prosecute.
The BJP's contention that other parties help Muslims at the expense of the Hindu majority has become an increasingly prominent part of its campaign in recent weeks - notably in areas where religious tensions run high.
The fighting in Muzaffarnagar and surrounding districts left about 65 dead, including four in Balyan's village 118 km (73 miles) northeast of Delhi.
Like many others voting in the red-brick villages, Balyan blames Muslim neighbours for starting the violence and the state government for refusing to keep the perpetrators locked up.
"People have been attracted towards BJP because of the riots," said Balyan, who belongs to the same Hindu caste as - and shares a surname with - the BJP parliamentary candidate in Muzaffarnagar. He admits to aiding the frenzy of violence.
"I supported my people by providing necessary material. They went in large numbers to other villages to teach Muslims a lesson," he said with a grin, scratching at a stubbly beard.
APPEAL TO HINDUS
The BJP has appealed to the sense of Hindu victimhood felt by Balyan. Modi's campaign manager Amit Shah was reprimanded this week by election authorities for speeches around Muzaffarnagar that appeared to justify the riots and accuse Muslims of raping, killing and humiliating Hindus.
Modi is favourite to become prime minister, opinion polls have shown, but his BJP needs a big win in Uttar Pradesh, a state with a population around the same size as Brazil's that sends more lawmakers to parliament than any other.
India's 1.2 billion people include about 150 million Muslims and they form a significant minority in Uttar Pradesh. By adding religious and caste issues to its broader national appeal based on good governance, the BJP is making a last-minute push for support in the electorally vital state, analysts said.
"This would help them mobilise votes at the last moment. That could be the calculation to harvest votes in Uttar Pradesh," said E. Sridharan, of the Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Study of India.
The party's manifesto, published this week, kept in place several issues dear to the movement's Hindu nationalist core, including doing away with laws applying only to Muslims that it sees as favouritism.
Almost all the victims of last year's riots were Muslims, including about 12,000 people who were made homeless and now shelter in tents on plots of land bought with compensation money.
On September 8, door-to-door cloth seller Babu Khan fled the village his family had lived in for centuries. A Muslim, he now lives with dozens of other refugees a few miles away, his home empty among the charred buildings and abandoned mosques left by a mob of thousands.
Khan shows a mark on his leg he says was caused by a bullet.
But the emotional scars run deeper.
"We will never go back to the village. We would prefer to beg on the road than go back," said Khan, whose brother was killed in the rioting, along with seven of his neighbours.
Another Muslim who fled the village, Khalil Ahmad, said: "If Modi becomes PM, we are worried that whatever happened in Gujarat and here could happen here again."
"MODI FOR PM"
Kutba, the village they left behind, is also the home of the BJP's parliamentary candidate, Sanjeev Balyan. It now has no Muslim residents. Although 800 Muslims who used to live there are registered as voters, not one had cast a ballot by midday.
Almost everybody, including children, wear orange "Modi for PM" hats and BJP flags flutter from the rooftops.
The BJP is not the only party to seek electoral benefit in tensions between India's Muslims and Hindus, which go back centuries and erupted in a frenzy of bloodshed that killed hundreds of thousands when colonial India was divided in 1947 into Hindu-majority India and Pakistan, an Islamic state.
The Samajwadi Party, which runs the government in Uttar Pradesh, is wooing Muslims. The ruling Congress party sought and received the support of the imam of the Jama Masjid, India's biggest mosque, for the election.
But Modi seems to have clinched the support of many Hindus.
"There is a Modi wave in the whole region and the whole country," said Ankur Raghuvanshi, a 20-year-old commerce student, after he cast his vote in Kutba. "Modi will be beneficial for the country, there will be economic growth, he is a Hindu leader and is beneficial for Hindus."
(Additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by John Chalmers and Andrew Heavens)