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Modi stirs passion

There is hardly a noise as an 8,000-strong crowd packs the street, hanging off balconies and rooftops to listen to Narendra Modi.
PTI | By Reuters, Adalaj
UPDATED ON APR 14, 2004 01:26 PM IST

There is hardly a noise as an 8,000-strong crowd packs the street, hanging off balconies and rooftops to listen to Narendra Modi, the hero of India's Hindu far right, tear into his rivals.

Modi, the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat accused of turning a blind eye to the slaying of minority Muslims two years ago, is picking on the Italian roots of the leader of the main opposition party.

"There are only two people who are not feeling good these days. ...Musharraf and Sonia Gandhi," he roars, referring to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Gandhi, the chief of the struggling but once unbeatable Congress party.

"Because they are both foreigners," he says, as the crowd applauds.

To his admirers, Modi, a key figure in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that also leads the national coalition government, is the defender of "Hindutva", a radical brand of Hindu nationalism.

To his enemies, he is a textbook fascist, a man they want to see stand trial for the Hindu-Muslim bloodshed that swept his state in 2002, India's worst religious bloodletting in a decade.

BJP SET TO RETURN

Surveys ahead of next week's first round of voting in a month-long general election predict a clear win for the BJP-led coalition, which has set aside its hardline Hindu agenda and is instead campaigning on a feel-good platform fuelled by strong economic growth and the prospect of peace with Pakistan.

But in Gujarat, where Hindu mobs went on a rampage of revenge after a Muslim crowd burned to death 59 Hindu pilgrims in an attack on a train in February 2002, Modi has barely changed tack.

He was swept back to power in a landslide state assembly poll victory a few months after the killings on an unabashed pro-Hindu campaign and has now merely added development as a campaign issue to his formidable mix of nationalism, populism and Gujarati pride, critics say.

"For a hundred years our leaders like Mahatma Gandhi fought to force white rulers out of the country. The Congress is now trying to bring them back," Modi, dressed in a kurta, a long cotton shirt, and a saffron scarf tells cheering supporters.

"I will not submit this country to a foreigner."

Firecrackers light up the sky, thousands of people hold up saffron scarves, and the drums beat louder as a heavily guarded Modi addresses an evening rally in a prosperous Hindu dominated part of the state's largest city, Ahmedabad.

Local BJP leaders crown him with a saffron turban -- saffron is the holy colour of Hinduism -- and offer him a sword.

"He has a powerful effect on people," says former state minister Vadibhai Patel.

Two years after the riots, Gujarat is on edge and deeply divided. Muslims, who make up nine percent of the state's 50 million people, want justice for the hundreds, including women and children, who were hacked and burned to death.

Hindus view them with deep suspicion and question their loyalty to India.

But Modi is not about to apply a healing touch. Instead, every now and then, his rallies include barbed references to Muslims and their appeasement by political parties for decades.

One of the biggest achievements of his administration, he says, is to send officials into Muslim neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad and in Godhra, where the train carrying Hindu pilgrims was firebombed in 2002, to force them to pay for electricity.

"While you paid the taxes, they were using electricity," he tells a rally near Ahmedabad's largest Muslim ghetto, Juhapura. "We have gone where no administration had ever gone before, Congress has only practised politics of appeasement."

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