The man seeking to usurp India’s ruling Congress party brought his campaign to the nation’s capital today – telling tens of thousands of supporters that corruption had eaten away the country’s dignity.
“The country wants a dream team, not a dirty team,” declared Narendra Modi, to enthusiastic roars. “Kick out the dirty team, bring in the dream team to put India on the road to progress. ”
Mr Modi is perhaps India’s most controversial and divisive politician. He has never fully thrown off the spectre of a massacre of hundreds of Muslims that took place in his state in 2002, an incident for which some of his ministers have been jailed.
But in recent years, Mr Modi’s stature has steadily grown, with increasing numbers within the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, excited by his charisma and his record of development during several terms as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. Earlier this month, the BJP announced the 63-year-old would be its official candidate for a general election scheduled to be held before next May.
His rally was the first in Delhi since being declared the party’s candidate. He had previously held events in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Tens of thousands of people poured into a tented area at the Japanese Gardens in the Rohini district of north-west Delhi. The precise size of the entire crowd, including those on the streets outside, will likely be a matter of contention.
A spokeswoman for the BJP, Meenakshi Lekhi, claimed that having spoken to police the party estimated that as many as 900,000 people attended the event. However, a spokesman for the Delhi police, Rajan Bhagat, told The Independent he was unable to provide any such estimate of the crowd size.
Among the people who hear Mr Modi’s energetic address, which lasted a little over an hour, was Murli Kumar, 32, a fruit salesman who lived nearby. “I get a lot of hope from Narendra Modi,” he said. “He has done development in Gujarat and I hope he will develop the rest of the country too.”
As is the case at most political rallies in India, there were far fewer women among the crowd than men. Ram Bati Devi, 30, whose husband is a daily labourer, said the family, originally from the state of Bihar, was struggling with constantly rising prices. The cost of flour, vegetables and electricity were all going up.
“This is the first time I have heard Narendra Modi. I have heard about him and read about him so I wanted to come,” she said.
The BJP has always struggled to secure votes from India’s Muslim community. Mr Modi in particular has been a focus of anger and ire. Ahead of the rally, the BJP worked hard to persuade Muslims to attend, urging them to wear traditional clothes.
Among those present was Wazeem Ahmed, a 35-year-old shopkeeper. Mr Ahmed said the killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 had created huge anguish among the Muslim community but he said he believed that the issue had now been dealt with. “He is definitely someone I will consider voting for because he is at least talking about the problems of the common man,” he said.
The rally in Delhi came as India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is due to meet with his Pakistani counterpart in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The two are due to discuss various issues, including the disputed region of Kashmir and recent border clashes between the two nations.
“I wonder if he will meet the Pakistani PM confidently today. I wonder if the PM will be able to ask him when Pakistan will stop aiding terrorism,” said Mr Modi, according to the Press Trust of India.
Mr Modi also attacked the deputy head of the ruling Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the man who will head the Congress’s election campaign. Last week, Mr Gandhi sparked huge embarrassment within his party by denouncing as “nonsense” a piece of legislation that had just been agreed by the cabinet.
“The pride of the prime minister has been brought down by his own party. The Congress’s vice president has committed the sin of disrespecting the prime minister,” claimed Mr Modi.
A spokesman for the Congress party failed to immediately respond to inquiries.
Later in New York, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan shook hands and talked for an hour. Briefing the media after the talks, India’s national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon said the meeting had been useful and that an agreement had been made to increase communication between troops of the two countries stationed on the so-called Line of Control.
However, Mr Menon said India considered there was little room for genuine progress until Pakistan addressed concerns over militancy. The two leaders invited each other to visit.