Indian PM Modi says he does not oppose Islam, Muslims as election campaign heats up

FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign rally in Himmatnagar

By Shivam Patel

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he does not oppose Islam or Muslims and wants the community to think about their future growth as they vote in an ongoing general election that completes its third phase on Tuesday.

Modi's critics accuse him and his party of targeting minority Muslims for electoral gains and the allegations grew after Modi referred to Muslims in a recent speech as "infiltrators" who have "more children".

He denied discriminating against Muslims and has linked his recent comment to what he described as the opposition Congress party's election plan to redistribute the wealth of majority Hindus among Muslims. The Congress denies making any such promise.

"We are not opposed to Islam and Muslims," Modi told broadcaster Times Now in an interview aired on Monday. "The opposition is looking after its own benefit. Muslim community is intelligent... the opposition is worried that their lies have been caught."

Modi is seeking a rare third straight term in the seven-phase election that started on April 19 and ends on June 1. Eleven states and territories will vote in the third phase on Tuesday and surveys suggest Modi will win comfortably when results are declared on June 4.

His campaign began by showcasing economic achievements of the past 10 years but changed tack after the first phase of voting and focused more on firing up his Bharatiya Janata Party's Hindu base by attacking rivals as pro-Muslim.

"I want to say to the Muslim community: introspect, think. The country's progressing, if you feel any shortcomings in your community, what is the reason behind it? Why didn't you get government benefits in the time when Congress was in power?"

Analysts say Modi and his Hindu nationalist party have made controversial remarks to invigorate their hardline base as the election sees comparatively low voter turnout from previous years. Surveys say jobs and inflation are the main concerns of voters.

"Think of your children and your own future," Modi said, referring to Muslims and the elections. "I don't want any community to live like labourers because someone is scaring them."

(Reporting by Shivam Patel in New Delhi)