NEW DELHI: India’s frontrunner for premier, Narendra Modi, exhorted voters Saturday to give him a strong mandate in polls starting next week as a new row flared over his Hindu nationalist party’s ability to protect the country’s secular traditions.
The controversy on the last day of campaigning for the nine-stage elections kicking off Monday was spurred by remarks by the Bharatiya Janata Party leader’s right-hand man, Amit Shah, who spoke of “revenge” in a part of India hit by Hindu-Muslim violence last year.
“This election is about voting out the government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus,” Shah said in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, leading daily The Indian Express and other media reported. “If you want revenge, vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” said Shah, who faces murder accusations over allegations he ordered the killing of a man whom police said was an Islamic militant.
Shah denies the murder allegations, calling them a political vendetta, but his proximity to Modi has long been a matter of public controversy.
Congress leaders accused Shah, who heads the BJP campaign in northern Uttar Pradesh state, of making a “provocative hate speech” and complained to India’s Election Commission.
The BJP defended Shah, saying he was only urging people to “vote for the BJP and Modi” in the election in which over 800 million people can vote, making it the world’s biggest democratic exercise.
Shah was asking voters — both Hindus and Muslims — to use the ballot box as “a weapon of every citizen” against a government that has failed to halt religious violence in the state, BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman told AFP.
Indian opinion polls, while notoriously unreliable, point to a strong win for the BJP under Modi, 63, a tea-stall owner’s son and a charismatic politician with a booming voice, who has said only he can revive the country’s once red-hot economy.
The secular left-leaning Congress, which has led India for a decade, has fallen out of favour with voters over a sharply slowing economy and massive corruption scandals.
Modi, a bachelor who likes to be seen as a “monk with a mission” according to his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, is supported by many business leaders who admire what they say is his corporate-friendly administration as chief minister of prosperous Gujarat state.
But critics worry about his Hindu nationalist rhetoric, fearing it could stoke religious tensions, and recall 2002 riots that swept Gujarat in which at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were hacked, burnt and shot to death. Some 13 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population is Muslim.
The bearded, barrel-chested Modi has repeatedly rejected opponents’ accusations he did not act decisively to halt the Gujarat riots and may even have encouraged them, and official investigations have never found grounds to charge him.
“Post 2002, there has not even been a single communal riot in Gujarat while there have many communal riots in other parts of the country like Uttar Pradesh,” said the BJP’s Sitharaman. “So-called secular parties like the Congress are only paying lipservice to communal harmony,” she said. Meanwhile, in a show of unity, Modi joined Lal Krishna Advani, 86, as the party patriarch filed his nomination papers in the Gujarat capital of Gandhinagar for the election that starts in India’s far-flung northeast.
Advani had earlier voiced unease with Modi’s ascendancy and he was still guarded, telling reporters he would not call Modi his “protege”, but saying he had never seen a “more brilliant and efficient manager”.
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