NEW DELHI Rahul Gandhi attacked the chief opponent of his embattled Congress party on Monday by accusing his regional government of 'abetting' religious riots in 2002.
Gandhi's charge injected a tense new element into a general election campaign that has so far focused mainly on the economy and corruption. Indians are due to vote by May in what many see as a direct contest between Gandhi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi.
Modi's record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat has been overshadowed by the riots 12 years ago in which Hindu mobs killed at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Rights groups and political rivals have long alleged he allowed or actively encouraged the attacks. Modi has always denied this, and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.
"The government in Gujarat was actually abetting and pushing the riots further," Gandhi told Times Now television in a rare interview, adding that Modi was responsible because he was chief minister of Gujarat at the time.
"The government in Gujarat was allowing the riots to happen," Gandhi said.
Gandhi, 43, a son of India's most famous political dynasty, was nominated this month to head the Congress party's election campaign. A once-booming economy has slowed sharply, while a series of corruption scandals involving Congress have boosted both Modi and a new anti-graft party.
The majority of India's 1.25 billion people are Hindus but around 13 percent are Muslims. Gandhi warned earlier this month of an opposition trying to split India on religious lines.
In his interview, he accused Modi of running his Bharatiya Janata Party like a one-man show, relying on his charisma rather than any particular policies.
"The BJP believes in concentration of power in the hands of one person. I fundamentally disagree with that. I believe in democracy, I believe in opening up the system," Gandhi said.
Rahul's father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers in post-independence India, but critics deride him as a political lightweight who depends on his family name for power and has barely registered his presence in parliament despite being a member for the last decade.
Until now he has struggled to show he can follow in his family's footsteps as a statesman and orator who can win over a new generation of voters.
During the interview, which lasted more than an hour, Gandhi underscored the achievements of the Congress party in office, and focused his message on empowering women, making institutions more transparent, and protecting the poor. He said he wanted to turn India into a manufacturing powerhouse like China.
(Reporting by Alistair Scrutton and Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)