NEW DELHI - Indian election frontrunner Narendra Modi on Tuesday condemned virulent anti-Muslim remarks by a one-time associate as he sought to keep attention on his core message of development and corruption-free administration.
Praveen Togadia, head of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), faces a police investigation after a video appeared to show him urging Hindus to evict Muslims from their neighbourhoods in western Gujarat state.
Speaking in Gujarat on Saturday, Togadia is heard saying: "We (Hindus) are in a majority - we should have the courage to intimidate them by taking the law in our own hands." A lawyer for Togadia said the clip was "false, malafide and mischievous".
Modi, a hardliner from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said he "disapproved" of the statement from Togadia, an associate when both men were in grassroots Hindu groups in the 1980s.
"Petty statements by those claiming to be BJP's well-wishers are deviating the campaign from the issues of development and good governance," he wrote on Twitter.
"I disapprove (of) any such irresponsible statement and appeal to those making them to kindly refrain from doing so," he added.
Religious tensions, an undercurrent for much of India's election campaign due to Modi's polarising past, have burst into the open in recent weeks following reported comments from hardliners.
Last week, Giriraj Singh, a BJP leader in eastern Bihar state, said critics of the 63-year-old leader "will have to go to Pakistan".
Modi's closest aide, Amit Shah, was temporarily banned from campaigning after he made inflammatory remarks in a constituency torn by anti-Muslim riots last September, urging supporters to seek "revenge" at the ballot box.
Modi remains a hate figure for many Indian Muslims, who make up 13 per cent of India's 1.2 billion population and are the largest religious minority in the secular but Hindu-majority country.
In 2002, while he was chief minister of Gujarat state, at least 1,000 people - mostly Muslims - were killed in religious riots. Modi has never been found guilty but he later appointed an organiser of the violence to his cabinet.
The BJP, last in power from 1990 to 2004, is widely forecast to emerge as the biggest party in the next parliament, with results in India's staggered elections due on May 16.
Modi rose through the ranks of right-wing Hindu organisations but has been campaigning as a centrist economic reformer, promising clean government after a decade of rule by the scandal-plagued Congress party.
Azam Khan, a Muslim leader of the regional Samajwadi Party, has also been sanctioned during campaigning for stating that only Muslim soldiers had fought for India during a brief 1999 war with Pakistan atop the Kargil ridges in Kashmir.