Modi plays Hindu card in tight Gujarat poll | india | Hindustan Times
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Modi plays Hindu card in tight Gujarat poll

india Updated: Dec 06, 2007 11:32 IST

Reuters
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Narendra Modi, the charismatic but controversial chief minister of Gujarat, is back on the offensive, playing the Hindu nationalist card ahead of this month's state election.

Dressed in a crisp orange waistcoat, Modi is touring Gujarat, boasting of his development record and attacking his rival, the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, as soft on Muslim "terrorists".

He shocked many, including his own party, for justifying on Tuesday the extra-judicial killing of a Muslim criminal. But he has stayed on the front foot, demanding the hanging of a convicted Muslim militant the next day.

"Soniaben (sister Sonia) is a guardian of terrorists," he told a rally in the communally polarised town of Godhra, complaining a death sentence had still not been carried out against Mohammed Afzal despite his conviction for an attack on India's parliament in 2001.

"Afzal Guru is a terrorist. I want to tell her -- 'if you don't have the courage, send him to Gujarat. We will hang him here'," the bearded and bespectacled Modi said, to applause.

The vote, in which Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in a straight fight with Congress, is seen as a key barometer of the country's two main parties' fortunes as the countdown begins to national polls due by mid-2009.

Taking the BJP stronghold would be a major boost for Congress, which heads the ruling national coalition -- but for now, Modi seems to be maintaining a narrow lead.

"You can see he has an edge, but Congress can still tilt the race," said Ajay Umat, editor of the Gujarati-language daily Divya Bhaskar.

Modi, 56, is seen as the poster boy of Hindutva, BJP's Hindu revivalist philosophy.

Accused of encouraging communal riots in 2002 in which up to 2,500 people, most of them Muslims, were killed, he swept state elections later that year with an aggressive pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim campaign.

Godhra, where Modi took his campaign on Wednesday, was the scene of a fire on a train which killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. The fire was blamed on Muslims and triggered the 2002 riots.

Until last week, Modi seemed to have softened his tone, campaigning as a champion of development in one of India's richest and fastest-growing states, but also one of its most communally divided.

RAM VS ROME

Analysts said Modi's development message had not struck a strong enough chord with voters. This week, he changed his tune.

On Tuesday, he justified the extra-judicial murder of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a Muslim shot dead by police on the pretext that he was conspiring to kill Modi.

His government had admitted in the Supreme Court that Sohrabuddin was killed in a staged gun battle, but Modi was unapologetic.

"What should have been done to a man from whom a large number of AK-47 rifles were recovered, who was on the search list of police from four states, who attacked the police, who had relations with Pakistan and wanted to enter Gujarat?," he said, according to the Press Trust of India.

When the crowd shouted "kill him, kill him", Modi replied: "Does my government need Soniaben's permission for this?"

Modi is facing divisions within BJP, and several dissidents unhappy with his autocratic style have joined Congress.

But on Wednesday he got a fillip when the radical Hindu organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), finally threw its weight behind Modi.

"Sonia, a foreign woman, works on the instructions of the Vatican City," the VHP said in newspaper advertisements. "If she gets the chance to form a government in Gujarat ... Hindu society faces several dangers."

Gandhi has campaigned in Gujarat this month, but her rallies have been subdued, if well attended. Modi's, by contrast, were always lively.

Mixing humour and vitriol, his delivery and timing perfect, he had the crowd eating out of his hand as he slammed Congress for suggesting there was no proof of Lord Ram's existence during a court battle earlier this year.

"I ask you, was Lord Ram born? Was Sita Ram's wife? Was Sita kidnapped by Ravana? Did Hanuman rescue Sita?" he asked in his deep, gravelly voice, pausing after each question for affirmation from the crowd.

"You know it all, but the Congress doesn't. Go and tell them," he said, to a sea of laughter. "If they can lie about Lord Ram, then they can lie about me."