Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi,a Hindu hardliner, on Saturday sought to reassure India’s large Muslim minority that he would respect their traditions if, as widely predicted, he is elected India’s prime minister, after 14 people died in the worst violence yet since the start of the country’s marathon election.
Modi’s statements in a rare television interview came as Indian police confirmed that Maoist rebels in insurgency-hit central India killed 14 people, most of them involved in helping stage the polls.
Protecting India’s Hindu-majority secular status has surfaced as a key election issue, with critics worrying that Modi’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric could stoke religious tensions in a country where 13 percent of the 1.2 billion population are Muslim.
In excerpts of the interview on India TV’s Web site, the candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said he refused to don a skullcap presented to him by a Muslim cleric three years ago, because he did not want “to hoodwink people.”
“I believe in respecting traditions of all religions, but at the same time, I have to respect my own tradition as well, although I respect all traditions. I can’t hoodwink people by wearing such skullcaps,” Modi said. “But I believe in taking action against those who show disrespect to other’s caps.”
Modi, under whose leadership Gujarat has thrived economically, paints himself as a pro-business reformist who alone can revive the economy of the world’s largest democracy.
Opinion polls favor the Bharatiya Janata Party to win the elections, ousting the scandal-tainted India National Congress party after a decade of rule.
Yet Modi remains a divisive figure after being accused of failing to swiftly curb Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat, in which at least 1,000 people died. He has repeatedly rejected opponents’ accusations of wrongdoing and investigations have never found grounds to charge him.
In his interview, Modi told the TV station he favored upward mobility for Muslims, who official figures show are generally poorer, more illiterate, have less access to education and are less represented in public sector jobs than their Hindu peers.
He suggested that Muslims should enjoy the fruits of India’s economic progress, saying: “I believe their children should get better education. They should have a Koran in one hand and a computer in the other hand.”
Amid the political jostling, two landmine blasts left 14 dead in impoverished Chhattisgarh State, marking the deadliest violence since polling began on Monday last week and highlighting security issues around the election.
Seven polling officials died when Maoists blew up their bus, senior Indian police officer Gurjinder Pal Singh told reporters.
Five security men carrying out an election safety sweep who hitched a ride in an ambulance were killed in another attack, which also killed the ambulance driver and a paramedic.
“The Maoists triggered the landmine blasts,” said Singh, a key Indian official in ensuring election security in the state, which is a hotbed of Maoist activity.
The blasts came on a day when Indians cast their ballots in Goa State and in the troubled northeast in the latest round of the multi-phase elections that wind up on May 12, the results of which are due four days later.
Maoist and separatist insurgencies occupy large swathes of India’s northeast, northwest and central regions.