Criss-crossing the country for months before the first phase of
voting began on Monday, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its
candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, had mainly campaigned
on a ticket of better governance, economic development and job
But just hours after voting started, the election commission
demanded an explanation from Modi's chief aide Amit Shah, accusing
him of incendiary speeches in towns where dozens of people, mostly
Muslims, were killed in Hindu-Muslim riots last year.
"It is not anyone's hobby to riot. When justice is not done to all
the parties and the action is one-sided action, then the public is
forced to come out in the streets," Shah said in the town of
Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh state last week, according to a
transcript provided by the commission.
In a series of speeches in the area, Shah also said voters should
reject parties that put up Muslim candidates. He said Muslims in the
area had raped, killed and humiliated Hindus.
Shah did not respond to requests for comment, but the BJP has said
he was within his rights to ask people to express their anger
through the ballot box.
India's 1.2 billion people include 150 million Muslims, who form a
sizeable minority in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous
state and a key electoral battleground.
The riots in Muzaffarnagar last year started with a minor scuffle,
which were exacerbated by inflammatory speeches by several local
politicians, news reports have said.
Although sectarian rioting is on the decline in India, it is still
hit by spasms of Hindu-Muslim violence. Hundreds of thousands of
people were killed when colonial India was divided in 1947 into
Hindu-majority India and Pakistan, an Islamic state.
Elections in India are also times of heightened tensions because
political parties often pitch for votes on the basis of religious
On Monday, the BJP released its election manifesto, promising to
build a temple on the site of a mosque torn down by Hindu zealots
more than two decades ago, reopening one of the most divisive issues
in the country. The party also said it remained committed to
withdrawing the special autonomous status for Jammu and Kashmir,
India's only Muslim-majority state.
Opinion polls have said Modi is favorite to form the next government
after results are announced on May 16, thanks to a strong campaign
highlighting his economic competence in running the western state of
Gujarat for 13 years.
But critics say he has a darker side and accuse him of failing to
stop the killing of Muslims in riots in Gujarat in 2002. Modi has
denied the accusations and the Supreme Court has said there is not
enough evidence to prosecute him.
A survey released by respected pollsters CSDS last week showed the
BJP and its allies winning the largest number of seats but falling
short of a majority. The decision to play on religious sentiments
may be a last-minute attempt to woo some blocs of Hindu voters,
The BJP maintains it is campaigning on economic issues and a vow to
end what it says is deep-rooted corruption in the government headed
by the ruling Congress party.
Shah is a controversial figure, who was charged in 2010 with the
extra-judicial killing of Muslims accused of terrorism when he was
the interior minister in Gujarat. He denies the charges and is free
The BJP has said the charges are trumped up at the behest of the
Congress party and he is expected to hold a senior government
position if Modi becomes prime minister.
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In the sugarcane fields and streets around Muzaffarnagar, the scene
of the riots last year, Hindu students, laborers and workers said
they would vote for Modi.
"We are treated like second-grade citizens in our own homeland
because most political parties and their leaders are running after
the Muslim vote. That is why I wish to support Modi this time, we
have a lot of hope for him," said Virender Malik, a laborer in a
About 50,000 people, mainly Muslims, were driven
from their homes in the rioting in Muzaffarnagar.
Some are still living in squalid relief camps, where support is
strong for the state government run by the Samajwadi Party, which is
backed by Muslims because of its staunch opposition to the BJP.
"We are all for the Samajwadi Party which is our only hope against
the BJP because of whom we got driven like mules away from our
homes," said Naseemuddin, a 55-year old Muslim farm laborer.
MANIFESTO SUPPORTS NEW TEMPLE
The BJP, until then on the periphery of national politics, burst
into prominence in the late 1980s as it helped mobilize a movement
leading to the destruction of a 16th-century mosque in the Uttar
Pradesh town of Ayodhya that Hindus claimed was built on the
birthplace of the god-king Ram. About 2,000 people were killed in
riots across India in 1992 after the disputed mosque was torn down
by Hindu mobs.
Many of the party's core supporters want to build a temple at the
site, a move supported in the manifesto unveiled on Monday.
"Once we have a Modi government in place, I am sure the grand Ram
temple in Ayodhya will become a reality. We have been waiting long
enough for that," said Sharad Sharma, an activist with a right-wing
nationalist group in Ayodhya.
Also in the manifesto were promises to protect and promote cows,
which many Hindus consider sacred. The issue is close to the heart
of supporters of Hindutva, a brand of Hindu nationalism.
The decision to put provisions such as the construction of the Ram
temple in the manifesto was taken mainly to satisfy hardliners in
the party, one person involved in drafting the document told
"You have to put it in there, so you do," he said.
E. Sridharan, a political scientist at the Pennsylvania Center for
Advanced Study of India, said the polarized atmosphere and such
pledges could help shore up support in Uttar Pradesh, which elects
80 of the 543 lawmakers sent to the lower house of parliament.
The BJP has said it aims to win up to 50 seats in the state, from
just 10 at the last election in 2009.
"I think maybe on the ground in some states, Uttar Pradesh in
particular, they need to add a flavor of this to their campaign to
mobilize Hindutva votes," said Sridharan.
(Additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipati;
writing by Frank Jack
Daniel; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Dean Yates)
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