BJP, Congress trade barbs over plight of Indian Muslims

Published April 7, 2014
JORHAT: Polling officers queue up to collect election material at a distribution centre ahead of general election in this district of the northeastern Indian state of Assam on Sunday.—Reuters
JORHAT: Polling officers queue up to collect election material at a distribution centre ahead of general election in this district of the northeastern Indian state of Assam on Sunday.—Reuters

NEW DELHI: Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi, front-runner for premier in the world’s biggest election, accused India’s ruling Congress party on the eve of the vote on Sunday of failing Muslims as his own party battled claims of fuelling religious tensions and his rival Rahul Gandhi warned that the country faced religious turmoil if Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won.

Modi also urged voters to give him a strong mandate during the marathon six-week ballot which starts on Monday.

“The problems that have plagued you in the past 60 years, I will get rid of all those problems in just 60 months,” he told thousands of cheering supporters in Bijnor in the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh.

However, Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi described Gandhi, front man for the party’s campaign and the scion of the country’s most famous dynasty which has dominated politics since independence, as a “superstar campaigner” who would return them to power.

“Congress is the only party that has resonance in every nook and cranny of India,” he said.

Voting will begin in the remote states of Assam and Tripura, before spreading across the country of 814 million voters in a staggered process. Results are due on May 16.

Modi, who is tainted by association with anti-Muslim riots, went on the attack after a row flared over accusations that his right-hand man had stoked tensions against Muslims just days before the election.

He accused Congress president and Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi of failing to deliver on pledges to improve the lives of Muslims.

“Madam Sonia, nearly 700 (communal) riots happened in the country in one year right under your nose.

And 250 of those were in UP,” Modi said.

The comments came after Modi’s close aide Amit Shah reportedly told several Hindu leaders to seek “revenge” at the ballot box. He was speaking in a part of UP hit by Hindu-Muslim violence last year that left some 50 people dead. “This election is about voting out the government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus,” he reportedly said on Friday.

The Congress has asked the Election Commission to order Shah’s arrest and ban him from campaigning.

A party official accused the BJP of making “horrible” statements and “creating animosity between communities”.

The BJP has said the comments have been taken out of context, while the Election Commission has so far declined to comment.

A local magistrate said on Sunday that an investigation was under way into the comments.

Modi, the 63-year-old son of a tea-stall owner, has focused on economic reform and creating jobs, largely steering clear of promoting any Hindu nationalist agenda.

But he has been tainted by religious riots in 2002 in Gujarat which he has governed since 2001. The riots killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. He has been cleared of any personal wrongdoing.

Addressing a rally in Sirsa, 250km from the capital, Rahul Gandhi said majority Hindus would be pitted against minority Muslims if hardliner Modi and his BJP clinched power.

“Wherever these people (BJP) go they create fights. They’ll pit Hindus and Muslims against each other,” he said.

“We walk with everybody, be it Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians. We walk with people from all communities, castes, religions and regions and that is our politics,” the 43-year-old leader said.

“We don't do politics of anger and division,” he said, as he implored voters to back Congress, which looks set for a defeat at the polls after a decade in power.The campaign, which has largely focused on development, has taken a religious tone in recent days.

With voters worried about the slowing economy and angry about corruption and high inflation under the Congress-led coalition, Modi has pledged to attract investment and overhaul manufacturing.

Opinion polls-- fallible in the past and famously wrong when Congress won in 2004 -- show the BJP likely to emerge as the biggest party in the next 543-member parliament. But the BJP is forecast to fall short of a majority, meaning another coalition will need to be stitched together comprising the country’s numerous regional parties.

Five seats are up for grabs on Monday in the tea-growing and underdeveloped Assam state and another one in Tripura, near the border with Myanmar.

A juice vendor in Assam's Dibrugarh, a Congress stronghold, said he would vote for Modi, as election officials in the town prepared to disperse to polling stations throughout the constituency. “The Congress has done nothing to control the rising prices. I voted for them in the last two parliamentary elections,” Motilal Shah said.-—AFP



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