This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Voters in the Indian state of Gujarat went to the polls today to determine the political fate of one of the country's most controversial politicians. It's the final round of voting, and the results could predict the fortunes of India's two main parties ahead of the next national elections.

And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, there are other reasons today's election is so important.

PHILIP REEVES: Why, you might ask, does anyone outside India care a jot about Gujarat? And why would anyone outside India care about the elections there? Yet the outside world does care. Its diplomats are watching closely.

Author and social activist Achyut Yagnik says the place really matters.

Mr. ACHYUT YAGNIK (Author, Social Activist): Gujarat is very important because Gujarat is one of the most developed and institutionalized(ph) province of India.

REEVES: To see the fruits of this, you only have to come here to the city of Ahmedabad.

(Soundbite of traffic)

REEVES: A young couple loads a huge pan(ph) of shopping into a rickshaw.

(Soundbite of noisy crowd)

REEVES: They've just come out of this fast, glistening mall. It's a glimpse of the future. Yet, in this city, the past is never far away. And that, says Yagnik, is another reason Gujarat matters.

Mr. YAGNIK: In 2002, it was a carnage; it was a carnage. And a lot of the Moro Muslim were killed.

REEVES: Five years ago, Gujarat was a scene of some of the worst sectarian violence in India since partition. There's disagreement over exactly how many people died. An official estimates say that it was more than 2,000. They were mostly Muslims set upon by mobs of hard-line Hindu nationalists intent on avenging the death of nearly 60 Hindus in an earlier attack on the train believed to be by Muslims.

Yagnik has written widely on the subject.

Mr. YAGNIK: I think most disturbing was the degree of violence also, the misbehavior with minority of event or with the dead body of Muslim women. That created a U.N. cry in the nation level also.

REEVES: At the time, Gujarat's government was led by Narendra Modi, a charismatic, authoritarian Hindu nationalist.

Soon afterwards, Modi was reelected. And now, Modi and the party to which he belongs, the BJP, are up for reelection again. That's the third reason Gujarat matters right now. Modi's government turned a blind eye too much of the 2002 violence. There's evidence police actively collaborated on attacks on Muslims.

Modi since softened his public stance, but his critics believe he still a hard-line nationalist, a demagogue who advocates a concept known as Hindutva, in which, says Professor Ghanshyam Shah, Hinduism is supreme.

Professor GHANSHYAM SHAH (Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University): Not only Modi but all Hindu fundamentalists believe in the supremacy of Hinduism. Their ambition in 21st century, Hinduism will be superpower in the world.

Chief Minister NARENDRA MODI (Gujarat, India): (Hindu spoken)

REEVES: On the streets, Modi's campaign isn't concentrating on Gujarat's vibrant economy. Yamale Vas(ph), a spokesman for the BJP, Modi's party, says the economy is what voters really care about. He says the violence of 2002 is now forgotten.

Mr. YAMAEL VAS (Spokesman, Bharatiya Janata Party): Almost everyone has forgotten, and it is something which is an unfortunate event which happened. But now, everyone is back to its own - his own - his or her ordinary life.

REEVES: But the events of 2002 haven't been forgotten here.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Ms. FEROZA BANU: (Hindu spoken)

REEVES: These days, Muslims and Hindus in Ahmedabad tend to live in segregated neighborhoods. This is a Muslim ghetto on the edge of town. The inhabitants include 25-year-old Feroza Banu(ph) whose husband was shot dead during the riots. Since then, she's been struggling to get by.

Ms. BANU: (Through translator) I cried a lot after my husband died. I have no in-laws. I have no family. I was very insecure. Life was very tough. I had a child to take care of. And I was all alone.

REEVES: She's sitting in a room with a group of maidens(ph). They talk of how they fear there may one day be more communal violence. They say they have lost faith in all politicians.

But, says, another woman, Natsi Aba(ph), there's one leader above all others who they say they do not want to see return to power. They'll always blame him for what happened here some five years ago.

Ms. NATSI ABA: (Through translator) For six months we saw riots happening, we saw babies torn from their mother's womb. And the government didn't do anything. So what is the use of a government that doesn't help when there are riots?

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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