By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat will go to the polls next month, the election commission said on Thursday, a vote that is likely to offer a clue to his party's prospects in a general election due by 2024.
Modi remains popular despite criticism of inflation and unemployment, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expects to emerge victorious in state assembly elections in Gujarat in the west, and in Himachal Pradesh in the north.
The Hindu-nationalist BJP has been in power in Gujarat since 1998 and Modi served as its chief minister for nearly 13 years before becoming prime minister when a BJP-led coalition won power in 2014.
The Gujarat assembly polls will be in two phases, on Dec. 1 and Dec. 5, the Election Commission of India said. Votes will be counted on Dec. 8 along with those from Himachal Pradesh, where polls will be held on Nov. 12.
Voters will go to the polls in Gujarat a month after the collapse of a suspension footbridge in the town of Morbi that killed 135 people.
Sunday's disaster has angered many but looks unlikely to erode the BJP's popularity in the state, analysts say.
Home affairs minister Amit Shah last month predicted that his BJP party would retain power in the 182-member Gujarat assembly with a two-thirds majority. In the last state election five years ago, the BJP won 99 seats while the main opposition Congress ended up with 77.
Facing criticism over unemployment, the BJP has announced big-ticket projects in recent months in Gujarat, including investment of 1.54 trillion rupees ($18.58 billion) by Vedanta Ltd and Taiwan's Foxconn to set up semiconductor and display plants.
An aircraft manufacturing project, valued at 219.35 billion rupees ($2.65 billion), by India's Tata group and Airbus also went to Gujarat where Modi faces a challenge from the regional Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has promised voters subsidies on electricity and other bills.
The AAP rules the capital, Delhi, and hopes to become the main challenger in Gujarat, having swept the election in the northern state of Punjab this year.
India's main opposition Congress party launched a cross-country march in September against "hate and division", hoping to revive its fortunes and regain some of the popularity it has lost to the BJP.
Yashwant Deshmukh, founder of polling agency CVoter Foundation, said the BJP was likely to hold Gujarat but the AAP could emerge as the main opposition ahead of Congress.
"After three decades, it's a triangular contest in Gujarat," he told Reuters, referring to the AAP's rise.
"The task of the BJP is easier because of the popularity of the prime minister and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party."
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly, additional reporting by Krishna Das in New Delhi; editing by Robert Birsel)