Gandhi meets Naidu - PM slams Godse comments by Thakur

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on a spiritual break yesterday to a famous Himalayan pilgrimage site in an apparent last-ditch effort to woo Hindu voters as India's acrimonious marathon election wound to a close. On the eve of the seventh and final day of voting in the world's biggest democratic exercise, Modi, 68, meditated at a holy cave wrapped in an orange robe in the northern state of Uttarakhand. Seated on a bed and propped up by a pillow, Modi was pictured inside the cave after having walked on a red carpet to the revered Kedarnath shrine dedicated to Hindu deity Lord Shiva.

He also shared pictures that he took en route to the shrine on Twitter where he boasts 47.3 million followers. He had to take special permission from the national poll watchdog for the trip as election rules prohibit any campaigning 48 hours before voting, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency said. Modi, who is seeking a second term after leading his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 2014, has pitched himself as a Hindu nationalist to curry favor with the country's majority community, which makes up around 80 percent of the 1.3 billion population.

His hectic campaign which started in March has seen him address three rallies a day on average, crisscrossing the length and breadth of the geographically diverse nation which is officially secular and home to a sizeable Muslim minority. "PM Modi addressed 142 public rallies, held four roadshows and according to conservative estimates he directly addressed about 15 million people in these rallies," BJP president Amit Shah said Friday. On his trip yesterday, Modi also reviewed reconstruction projects after floods in Uttarakhand in 2013 killed some 6,000 people. Some 900 million people are eligible to vote in the election, with results due on May 23.

Anti-BJP alliance
Opinion polls predict that the BJP may lose seats this time despite its formidable campaigning machine, meaning it might need a coalition to form a new government. Modi's main rival is Rahul Gandhi, 48, of the Congress party, the scion of India's famed Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The two parties have thrown almost daily barbs at each other, accusing each other of corruption, nepotism and fake nationalism. Yesterday, Gandhi met Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of southern Andhra Pradesh state who has been trying to cobble an opposition alliance against Modi. At their meeting in New Delhi, they discussed the "impending need to bring together all parties which are against the BJP", PTI reported, quoting sources.

As in previous elections, the polling has been marked by violence, most recently in West Bengal state where tens of thousands of security forces have been deployed following street clashes between BJP and rival supporters of the regional Trinamool Congress party. The gargantuan election has also seen a flood of "fake news", including photoshopped images and edited video clips, with both main parties using legions of people to manage social media.

Modi on Friday condemned a firebrand Hindu election candidate from his ruling party who called the assassin of independence hero Mahatma Gandhi a "patriot". The conservative prime minister was forced to act as a backlash grew over comments by Pragya Singh Thakur, already dogged by a criminal case over a 2008 bomb attack. Thakur later issued an apology for her statement that Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse "was, is, and will remain a patriot".

But it failed to douse the controversy, and the BJP said it has launched an inquiry into Thakur. "Any comments and or statements made on Gandhi or Godse are absolutely wrong. Such language and thoughts should be condemned and are unacceptable in a civilized society," Modi said in a television interview. "People with such beliefs must think one hundred times before saying such things. "She apologized publicly for the comments, but I won't forgive her at a personal level," Modi told the News 24 channel.

Gandhi was shot three times in Jan 1948 by Godse, a Hindu fanatic angered by what he considered Gandhi's pandering to Muslims and by India's partition after independence in 1947. The BJP astounded many last month when it named Thakur as its parliamentary candidate in the Madhya Pradesh state capital of Bhopal. Critics accused the party of using Thakur to polarize voters on religious lines. Thakur was arrested shortly after a bomb blast near a mosque in Melegaon, Maharashtra state, in 2008 that killed six people and injured 100. One charge against her has been dropped, but Thakur is still on bail waiting for another charge to be heard.

Thakur said she had only given her "personal opinion" about Gandhi. "My intention was not to hurt anyone's sentiments. If I've hurt anyone, I do apologize. What Gandhi has done for the country cannot be forgotten," she said. The opposition Congress party, which Gandhi once led, called on Modi to expel Thakur from the BJP. "Remove terror accused Pragya Thakur from your party. Her statements have not only brought disgrace but also hurt the sentiments of people in India and across the world," said a party statement on Twitter. - AFP