GODHRA (Reuters) - 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”.
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.
But Modi has run into trouble with the country’s powerful Election Commission, which has criticised him for creating communal hatred and tension, for justifying the extra-judicial killing of a Muslim criminal.
Earlier this year, his government admitted that Sohrabuddin Sheikh had been shot dead by police in a staged gunbattle, on the pretext that he was conspiring to kill Modi.
“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?,” Modi told a rally on Tuesday.
When the crowd shouted “kill him, kill him”, Modi replied: “Does my government need Soniaben’s permission for this?”
The Election Commission said it had studied video of the speech, and said it appeared to violate its Code of Conduct.
“The Commission, prima facie, is of the view that the references to late Shri Sohrabuddin and linking his name to terrorism, made in the speech, amounts to indulging in activity which may aggravate existing differences, creating mutual hatred and causing tension between different communities.”
It gave Modi until Saturday to reply.
Despite the furore, Modi has shown little sign of dropping his pro-Hindu agenda, demanding the hanging of a convicted Muslim militant the next day.
“Soniaben 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.
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.
Analysts said Modi’s development message had not struck a strong enough chord with voters, and this week he changed his tune.
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.”