Rising Hindu nationalist seeks moderate image with fast

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A pro-business Hindu leader who some think could be India’s next prime minister began a “harmony” fast yesterday to soften his image as a hardliner blamed for religious riots that claimed hundreds of mostly Muslim victims nine years ago.

The fast is seen as a bid by Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state, and his party, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to launch him as a national leader as the government loses popularity over inflation and corruption scams.

Seizing the moment after the Supreme Court referred to a lower court a case in which Modi was accused of complicity in the 2002 violence, he is using the fast to depict himself as a conciliator with a strong record on the economy.

“In democracy, there is no place for any ill will or revenge,” Modi, wearing a white turban, said from an air-conditioned hall in Ahmedabad, capital of Gujarat, where he will conduct his fast.

“My effort has been to take Gujarat forward. In terms of economic and overall progress, Gujarat has made giant strides,” Modi said of his western state which has seen 11 per cent growth in recent years. Hundreds of supporters, both Hindu and Muslim, sang religious slogans as he entered the hall, flanked by senior BJP members.

“It is for peace and communal harmony. Through my fast, I want to reach out to more people,” said Modi in comments broadcast live on national television.

Parties are gearing up for an election in the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh next year, a key barometer for general elections in 2014.

In a rare sign of contrition, the notoriously self-assured Modi wrote an open letter on the eve of the fast opposing religious and caste divisions.

“I am grateful to all those who pointed out my genuine mistakes during last 10 years,” he wrote.

Modi, who celebrated his 61st birthday yesterday, said 11 per cent annual growth showed Gujarat had recovered from the riots that killed more than 1,000 people and was now peaceful.

After leading Gujarat for the past decade, there has been speculation Modi would seek a greater role in national politics. LK Advani, a veteran BJP leader who many believe has ambitions to be prime minister, heaped praise on Modi.

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