Indian minister projects ruling party win as polls near end

Indian minister projects ruling party win as polls near end

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NEW DELHI (AP) — An Indian government minister said Friday that she's confident her Bharatiya Janata Party will remain in power when general elections conclude this month, and that minorities in Hindu-majority India have nothing to fear from five more years of the Hindu nationalist ideology the party espouses.

"Our assessment is we are coming back and we are coming back with a good majority," Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told foreign reporters in New Delhi ahead of Sunday's sixth phase of polling in the six-week election.

While the BJP campaigned in 2014 on promises to supercharge the economy, the tenor of its re-election campaign changed after a February suicide bombing in restive Kashmir, helping the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi turn the focus away from its uneven economic record and toward the stability it offered to confront terrorism.

In the weeks before the attack, the Modi government was under scrutiny for suppressing official data showing joblessness at a 45-year high and for a policy intended to curb illicit cash that ended up hurting the poor.

But Modi and the BJP seemed to gain the upper hand after a self-described Kashmiri member of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed detonated a bomb in the middle of an Indian military convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing 40 soldiers.

India retaliated with a "surgical" strike on an alleged militant training camp in the town of Balakot in Pakistan, the results of which remain unclear. The government has declined to say how many people were killed in the strike, saying only that it hit its targets. Pakistan suggested that the airstrike hit only trees.

Still, Modi and the BJP have used the strike to energize supporters at campaign events across India, accusing the opposition Congress party, which governed India for about a half a century after the nation won independence from British rule in 1947, of being soft on Pakistan, soft on terror, pandering to Muslims for votes and pampering Kashmiri separatists.

"From the public you get tiny pieces of paper: Will there be another surgical strike? Talk about that. Will there be another Balakot? Talk about that," said Sitharaman, who has participated in some of the campaign events. "The moment we start talking about it, you see the response," she said.

In the wake of the suicide bombing, Kashmiris reported discrimination and threats of violence from elsewhere in India, following a well-documented pattern of antagonism against Muslims since the Modi government came to power.

Human Rights Watch reported an increase in attacks by so-called cow vigilantes against Muslims and lower-caste Hindus suspected of illegally transporting cattle or eating beef in recent years.

Rather than temper the situation, BJP members have sometimes inflamed it.

In defending a Modi government-backed bill that would make it easier to strip citizenship from some immigrants who entered the country illegally decades ago while granting citizenship to "persecuted" non-Muslim religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, BJP President Amit Shah said "infiltrators" from outside India threatened the country's national security, likening them to "termites."

Of such comments, Sitharaman said only, "I wish you could hear it in Hindi," implying, incorrectly, that the words were less insulting in the Hindi language.

She rejected the notion that Muslims were unwelcome in the BJP's Hindu nationalist vision of India.

"Any kind of speculation on 'oh, minorities are in trouble' is absolutely baseless," she said.

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