NEW DELHI: Narendra Modi, front-runner for premier on the eve of the world’s biggest election, accused India’s ruling Congress party of failing Muslims as his own party battled claims of fueling religious tensions.
Modi, who is tipped to win power on a promise of reviving the country’s battered economy and creating jobs, also urged voters to give him a strong mandate during the marathon six-week ballot which starts on Monday.
“The problems that have plagued in you in the past 60 years, I will get rid of all those problems in just 60 months,” Modi told thousands of cheering supporters in Bijnor in the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh.
His main rival Rahul Gandhi will take to the stage in New Delhi and neighboring Haryana state to implore voters to stick with Congress, which is tipped to suffer a crushing defeat after a decade in power.
“Congress is the only party that has resonance in every nook and cranny of India,” senior party spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi said.
He described Gandhi, frontman for the Congress campaign and the scion of India’s most famous dynasty which has dominated politics since independence, as a “superstar campaigner” who would return them to power.
Voting will begin in the two remote northeastern states of Assam and Tripura, before spreading across the country of 814 million eligible voters in a staggered process. Results are due on May 16.
Modi, who is tainted by association with anti-Muslim riots, went on the attack after a row flared over accusations that his right-hand man stoked tensions against Muslims just days before the election starts.
Without referring specifically to the accusations, Modi accused Congress president and Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi of failing to deliver on pledges to improve the lives of Muslims, who at 13 percent of the population are India’s largest religious minority.
“Madam Sonia, nearly 700 (communal) riots happened in the country in one year right under your nose. And 250 of those were in UP (Uttar Pradesh) alone,” said Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The comments came after Modi’s close aide Amit Shah reportedly told several Hindu leaders to seek “revenge” at the ballot box. He was speaking in a part of Uttar Pradesh hit by Hindu-Muslim violence last year that left some 50 people dead.
“This election is about voting out the government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus,” Shah reportedly said on Friday.
Congress has asked the Election Commission to order Shah’s arrest and ban him from campaigning. A party official accused the BJP of making “horrible” statements and “creating animosity between communities.”
The BJP has said the comments have been taken out of context, while the Election Commission has so far declined to comment.
Modi, the 63-year-old son of a tea-stall owner, has focused on economic reform and creating jobs, largely steering clear of promoting any Hindu nationalist agenda.
But he has been tainted by religious riots in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat which he has governed since 2001. The riots there killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. He has been cleared of any personal wrongdoing.
Opinion polls — fallible in the past and famously wrong when Congress won in 2004 — show the BJP likely to emerge as the biggest party in the next 543-member parliament.
Voters, worried about the slowing economy and angry about corruption and high inflation under the Congress-led coalition, appear won over by Modi’s pledge to attract investment, improve infrastructure and boost manufacturing.
But the BJP is forecast to fall short of a majority, meaning another coalition will need to be stitched together comprising India’s numerous regional parties.