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Trial over 2002 massacre unearths inconvenient truths for India's BJP

AHMEDABAD, India -- Ten years on, Abdul Sheikh can still hardly believe that the doctor who had performed an ultrasound scan on his pregnant wife turned out to be a ringleader in the orgy of violence that killed both the mother and her unborn child.

“I remember hearing the commotion and I rushed out to find Dr. Kodnani inciting a mob of thousands, screaming 'kill those bastards!'” said Sheikh, one of the witnesses whose testimony led last week to the jailing of 31 people for hunting down and slaughtering dozens of Muslims in 2002.

Among those convicted by the court was the gynecologist, Maya Kodnani, a sitting lawmaker for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the western state of Gujarat.

The eyewitness accounts of Kodnani handing out swords to Hindu thugs and urging them on to bloodshed are an embarrassment for India's main opposition party as elections loom in 2014, underlining its struggle to present itself as moderate and responsible rather than hard-line and dangerous.

“The party's core is radical,” said political analyst Amulya Ganguli. “It is an albatross around its neck and it will continue to drag it down.”

That has been shown by the party's muted reaction to the verdict. Political commentators say the BJP's failure to condemn the actions of Kodnani and the others convicted is significant, a clear sign that it fears alienating its core support base.

Party officials have dodged questions about the political fallout from the case, limiting their comments to praise for Gujarat's criminal justice system.

The verdict is also a blow to the BJP's best hope for prime minister, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat. Critics say he turned a blind eye to the 2002 religious riots in which up to 2,500 people were slain after suspected Muslims set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.

Modi says he has nothing to apologize for, but it was he who appointed Kodnani as state minister for women and child development in 2007, even though she had already been implicated in the carnage.

“It's hard to think of a more grotesque appointment, even harder to understand the sensibility that would vest someone who had conspired in the murder, amongst others, of a pregnant woman, with the responsibility for the welfare of women and children,” columnist Mukul Kesavan wrote in the Times of India.

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