Ahmedabad: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on Friday kicked up a political storm by saying he had done "absolutely the right thing" during the 2002 riots and describing himself as a "Hindu nationalist".
Modi came under sharp attack from the Congress, Samajwadi Party, CPI(M), CPI and JD(U) for his remarks in an interview to Reuters during which he said he had not done anything wrong with regard to the riots. An SIT set up by the Supreme Court had given him a "thoroughly clean chit", he said.
The Gujarat strongman`s comment, when asked if he regretted the riots, that even if a "puppy comes under the wheel" of a car, one felt sad, drew particularly sharp condemnation with SP accusing him of comparing Muslims to dogs.
Congress and SP demanded immediate apology to the nation from him.
Slamming Modi, Congress said the remarks reflected his "perverse mindset" and were "totally against the idea of India".
"Thousands of people lost their lives in the 2002 riots and in this backdrop the anology used by Narendra Modi needs to be strongly condemned. There is no place for such a comparison in civilised India," said Ajay Maken, AICC Communications Department head, in a reference to the `puppy` remark.
Samajwadi Party spokesman Kamal Farooqui said, "It is a very sad, very humiliating and very disturbing statement... What does he (Modi) think, that Muslims are worse than even puppies? He does not have a heart for them. He should feel sorry... He should apologise."
"He (Modi) should be ashamed for using such a language," the SP leader said, adding, "the earlier he apologises, the better it will be. Otherwise, there will be dangerous consequences."
Congress leader and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said Modi was "gradually becoming his own worst enemy". He said if Modi feels he is "misinterpreted", he should talk less.
Attacking Modi, CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat said, "The expression of regret just doesn`t come to Modi....There is something wrong fundamentally what he is saying."
CPI leader D Raja described Modi`s comments as "desperate attempt to deceive people and hoodwink the Indian masses."
Shivanand Tiwari, leader of JD(U) which only last snapped ties with BJP, attacked Modi and said "psycho-analysis should be done on him".
He added that it would be a "very dangerous situation if a person of such a person becomes the country`s Prime Minister."
BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman sought to defend Modi, saying his comments had been "misinterpreted" completely, resulting in a "controversy where it does not exist".
In the rare interview, the first since he was appointed the chief of BJP election campaign committee in June, Modi was asked if it was frustrating when many people define him by 2002.
He responded by saying that he would feel guilty if he had done something wrong. "Frustration comes when you think `I got caught. I was stealing and I got caught.` That`s not my case."
To a question whether he had done the right thing in 2002, he said, "Absolutely. However much brainpower the Supreme Being has given us, however much experience I`ve got, and whatever I had available in that situation and this is what the SIT had investigated."
Asked if he regretted what had happened, Modi said the Supreme Court had created a Special Investigating Team which in its report had given him a "thoroughly clean chit, a thoroughly clean chit".
"Another thing, any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we`re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will be painful or not? Of course, it is. If I`m a Chief Minister or not, I`m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad," Modi said.
Answering a question about being regarded as a polarising figure, Modi cited the example of Democrats and Republicans in the US to emphasise that polarisation was "democracy`s basic nature".
Asked whether he believed India should have a secular leader, the Chief Minister said, "We do believe that. But what is the definition of secularism? For me, my secularism is, India first. I say the philosophy of my party is `justice to all, appeasement of none`. This is our secularism."
To a question about criticism that he was an authoritarian, he said, "If you call yourself a leader, then you have to be decisive. If you are decisive, then you have the chance to be a leader. These are two sides to the same coin."
"People want him (leader) to make decisions. Only then they accept the person as a leader. That is a quality, it is not a negative. The other thing is, if someone was authoritarian, then how would he be able to run a government for so many years? Without a team effort, how can you get success?"
Queried how he would persuade minorities, including Muslims, to vote for him, Modi said he saw all voters as Indians and he would not like to divide the country.
"Hindus and Muslims, I am not in favour of dividing. I am not in favour of dividing Hindus and Sikhs. I am not in favour of dividing Hindus and Christians. All the citizens, all the voters, are my countrymen. So my basic philosophy is, I don`t address this issue like this. And this is a danger to democracy also. Religion should not be an instrument in your democratic process."