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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 14:32 GMT
Vajpayee reaches out to Muslims
Muslims listen to Atal Behari Vajpayee
Mr Vajpayee made a direct appeal for Muslim votes
India's prime minister has appealed to Muslims not to be afraid and vote for his Hindu nationalist party in this year's general election.

"We are creating a new India - we need your help," Atal Behari Vajpayee said.

He also told the thousands of Muslims who had gathered for a rare convention in Delhi that India should "walk and live together" with Pakistan.

His ruling BJP hopes peace moves and a strong economy will help it return to power in elections expected in April.

Delhi and Islamabad began peace talks this month, after two years of tension.

I have come to appeal to you... stop being afraid, give it serious thought
Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee
The prime minister told his Muslim audience in the capital that India's policy was to have peace with its neighbours while keeping the country's interests in mind.

"There is no conflict between the two," he said.

"If we have to fight, we have to fight against poverty and unemployment but not with each other."

Wooing Muslims

Urging Muslims to put aside their mistrust of the BJP, Mr Vajpayee asked them to seriously consider voting for the party.

Atal Behari Vajpayee addresses Muslims
Vajpayee: "Our policy is to have peace with all our neighbours"

"We have always sought votes from all sections, but we didn't get them," he said.

"I have come to appeal to you... stop being afraid, give it serious thought."

The BJP has been attempting to reach out to India's 130 million-strong Muslim minority, which has often been suspicious of the party's strong Hindu nationalist agenda.

On Tuesday, a key Muslim politician joined the BJP and said he would work to "bridge the gap" between the party and the Muslim community.

Arif Mohammad Khan, a former member of the main opposition Congress Party, is seen by many as a prize catch for the governing party.

Why are they suddenly thinking of reaching us to out now, just days before the election?
Mehmood Madani
Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind
The BJP has already announced that it is dropping the contentious Ayodhya issue from its campaign.

The Ayodhya dispute, in which hardline Hindus pushed to build a grand temple on the ruins of a destroyed 16th century mosque, was once the BJP's key campaign issue.

The hardliners believe the mosque, destroyed by Hindus in 1992, was built over a site marking the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram.

Gujarat scar

But many Muslims say the BJP is unlikely to win much support among the community.

Mehmood Madani of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a Muslim religious body, says that they have not changed their impression of the BJP.

"Why are they suddenly thinking of reaching us to out now, just days before the election? Why didn't they think of it earlier, during their five years in power?" he asked.

He added that religious violence in Gujarat two years ago had left a lasting scar on the community.

Sarosh, a civil engineer working in Saudi Arabia who was attending the rally, agreed with this view.

"They can only gain our trust if they bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice, something they have still to do," he told the BBC.

More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in Gujarat in 2002 in some of the worst religious violence in India in decades.

The BJP-ruled state administration was accused of turning a blind eye to the rioting.

Countdown to Indian election
12 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Vajpayee's election gamble
09 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Ayodhya 'not an election issue'
23 Feb 04  |  South Asia
India's new-look governing party
14 Jan 04  |  South Asia

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