NEW DELHI Rahul Gandhi, seen as an India prime minister in waiting, told the U.S. ambassador radical Hindu groups could pose a bigger threat to the country than the Islamists who attacked Mumbai in 2008, a leaked cable showed.
The comments made to Timothy Roemer last year were immediately criticised by the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), adding to political sparring that has deadlocked parliament and pushed policymaking into limbo.
Gandhi's comments, made in response to a question from Roemers on the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group, referred to religious tension created by more extreme BJP leaders, according to the cable released by WikiLeaks and published on Friday by Britain's Guardian newspaper.
Gandhi said there was evidence of some support for the LeT among Indian Muslims, the ambassador wrote, according to the cable.
"However, Gandhi warned, the bigger threat may be the growth of radicalised Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community," Roemer wrote.
India has a history of communal tensions between majority Hindus and minority Muslims, and critics say several political parties play on insecurities amongst Muslims to win votes. In 2002, about 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in riots in western Gujarat state, human rights groups estimated.
Radical Hindu groups, some with ties to the BJP or the BJP's more extreme sister organisations, have been linked to bomb attacks against Muslim targets.
The controversy adds to the woes of the ruling Congress party, which is already fighting to contain the damage from a series of setbacks including corruption scandals, high food prices and a poor showing in a state poll.
The BJP has threatened to block the February budget session of parliament if the government does not set up a parliamentary committee to investigate charges the country lost $39 billion in revenue due to corruption in the granting of telecoms licences.
Gandhi, son of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, has sparked the BJP's ire before. He once compared the opposition party's parent organisation to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India.
On Friday, the BJP said Gandhi's comments were adding grist to propaganda from Islamist militants and Pakistan.
"In a way he is seeking to justify the entire propaganda. That will impinge on our security and strategic concerns and the fight against terror. The BJP strongly condemns this statement which is irresponsible," BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
"After this, the people will know that you, Rahul Gandhi, have a long way to go to understand this nation."
Congress said it would not immediately react to the report.
"There is no reason to react in this excited manner. the matter has to be looked into, it has to be investigated and verified. We will let you know in the context of that," Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi told reporters. LeT militants from Pakistan held Mumbai under siege for three days in Nov 2008, killing at least 166 people. India halted peace talks with nuclear-armed rival Pakistan following the attacks.
Several conspiracy theories have floated that Hindu groups were involved in the Mumbai attacks, including by Congress leaders, especially after a police officer investigating Hindu radical groups was killed.
(Editing by Paul de Bendern and Robert Birsel; Editing by Alex Richardson)