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Narendra Modi’s right-hand man faces murder charges Ex-Indian army chief V.K. Singh joins opposition BJP

AHMEDABAD, India, March 2, (Agencies): Amit Shah is charged with three counts of murder. He is also a key election campaign manager and close aide of Narendra Modi, the frontrunner to become India’s next prime minister. To supporters, Shah’s proven talent in winning elections makes him the obvious choice to run Modi’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, a swing state that holds the key to national power. But for critics, Modi’s ties to Shah are proof that there is a dark side to the Hindu nationalist leader now storming ahead in opinion polls on promises to sweep away corruption and economic mismanagement. Modi’s popularity stems in large part from his record of governance as chief minister of Gujarat state, an economic powerhouse. But he himself is dogged by accusations that he turned a blind eye to sectarian riots in Gujarat, in which at least 1,000 people — mainly Muslims — were killed in 2002. He denies any wrongdoing and the Supreme Court has said there is not enough evidence to proceed against him.

“We were shocked,” said Mukul Sinha, a lawyer representing relatives of victims in the cases against Shah, commenting on his appointment as campaign manager for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state. “This man faces criminal charges. But if Modi wins, he could be one of India’s most powerful politicians,” he said, referring to the possibility that Shah could become a senior federal minister. An election due by May will pit Modi’s BJP against the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s Congress party, whose popularity has wilted after two terms in power amid a sharp economic slowdown and corruption scandals. The BJP says Congress and other parties pander to minorities for votes. Congress counters that Modi and the BJP are biased, especially against Muslims.

Meanwhile, Narendra Modi, the opposition frontrunner to become the country’s next prime minister, highlighted Sunday his state’s record on religious tolerance, saying “not a single riot” had occurred in the last 10 years. At an election rally in the northern city of Lucknow, Modi trumpeted social and economic development in western Gujarat, where he has been chief minister since 2001 — a year later it was the scene of deadly communal riots. In front of several hundred thousand supporters, Modi sought to contrast Gujarat with the electorally crucial state of Uttar Pradesh where he said crime, including against women and religious minorities, was spiralling.

“Within a span of one year 150 riots took place in Uttar Pradesh, but in the last 10 years, not a single riot, not even a curfew has occurred in Gujarat,” Modi told the crowd in Lucknow, the state’s capital. Modi was referring to clashes between Muslims and Hindus around Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district last year that killed at least 50 people and forced thousands to flee to refugee camps. In another report, a former Indian army chief who resigned from the military following a controversy over his age Saturday announced he had joined the Hindu nationalist opposition ahead of looming elections. India’s massive armed forces normally stay out of politics, but retired General V.K. Singh had been tipped to enter the arena since resigning as the head of the army in May 2012 after being accused of fudging his birth date to extend his service term.

Singh said he was joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — tipped to sweep the polls due by May — to “elect a stable, powerful government that can take decisions in the national interest”. The ex-army chief had been expected to become a BJP member after appearing last year at a rally with the opposition party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, where they addressed retired soldiers. BJP backers are hoping Singh’s support will bring votes from India’s million-strong defence forces, an important constituency. Several other former defence officers joined the BJP with Singh, who sought to rally the crowd with cries of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” — “hail soldier, hail farmer”. Singh’s relations with the scandal-tainted Congress government, which is struggling in opinion polls, were soured by the row over his birth date.

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