Opposition fury after Rahul accuses rival of abetting riots

A child waving a BJP flag in a crowd of supporters

INDIA - India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party reacted with fury after the ruling party's vice-president Rahul Gandhi accused its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi of abetting one of the worst episodes of Hindu-Muslim rioting, that took place in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat.

Calling Mr Gandhi of the Congress party "irresponsible" and "ignorant", the BJP asked that he apologise for his comments.

"Mr Rahul Gandhi is vice-president of the party, how can he be irresponsible in making these wild allegations?" asked BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad at a press conference.

While Mr Modi, who is Gujarat chief minister, has been cleared of any wrongdoing by investigating agencies, he is still criticised by victims and rights groups of not doing enough to stem the riots.

On Monday, in his first TV interview since joining politics in 2004, Mr Gandhi attacked Mr Modi's handling of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. "The government in Gujarat was actually abetting and pushing the riots further, Mr Gandhi told Times Now's Arnab Goswami, known for his aggressive style of questioning.

He said he was not afraid of Mr Modi, who is leading in opinion polls. "I have seen my grandmother die, I have seen my father die, I have seen my grandmother go to jail and I have been through a tremendous amount of pain as a child," he said. " There is absolutely nothing I'm scared of."

In the freewheeling interview, he said he wanted to democratise India's closed political system, and defended his government's record on economic and social policies. He said he wanted to empower women and make India a manufacturing hub to beat China.

Mr Gandhi, 43, is from the Nehru Gandhi political dynasty that has for the most part led the Congress party and given India three prime ministers. He is taking over the leadership at a time when the party is hurting from a series of corruption scandals, a slowing economy and issues like rising violence towards women.

Over the last couple of months, Mr Gandhi, who had earlier shied away from the media and from public speaking, has been more engaging, speaking at public forums.

But his first TV interview failed to remove doubts over his leadership abilities, with many calling it lacklustre. "He projected himself as a leader-cum-philosopher. But he did not spell out how he will lead India or a vision for Congress," said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar.

"There are many contradictions. For instance, he says I don't believe in dynasty but it is my compulsion to lead."

Many felt the highly-anticipated interview did little to flesh out his public persona. "World's largest democracy may run the risk of falling into inexperienced, immature and whimsical hands!" tweeted former police officer and Modi supporter Kiran Bedi.

Sections of the Indian media were equally damning. Mr Gandhi, according to an article in The Hindu, "avoided the issue of Hindu nationalism and provided few details of his party's agenda."

The Telegraph newspaper in turn called Mr Gandhi "the least understood politician".

gnirmala@sph.com.sg


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