India's ruling BJP gears up for next electoral test

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Leaders of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party called on followers Saturday to gear up for key state elections in order to extend the Hindu nationalist movement's grip on the country.

New Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May, promised to "fulfil the aspirations of the people".

Modi was elected on a platform of reviving sharply slowing economic growth and ending a string of corruption scandals which marked the Congress party's decade-long rule.

Both Modi and BJP president Amit Shah paid tribute to the hard work of members responsible for the party's landslide national election win.

Shah lauded the "unstinted sweat and hard work of these (party) foot soldiers".

But he said the right-wing party still had work to do with elections coming up in key states.

"If we work together with all our strength, we will have victory," Shah told the meeting of the party's national council, which includes parliamentarians, chief ministers and legislators of all states as well as party office bearers.

His speech came after the national council ratified his appointment as party president.

Shah, a 50-year-old shrewd party strategist, is credited with helping engineer the BJP's election win, particularly its strong showing in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

But Shah, a trusted loyalist of Modi and known as his political trouble-shooter, is also seen as a controversial figure.

His appointment has been criticised by BJP opponents who have voiced concern over inflammatory comments he made after anti-Muslim riots and also murder and extortion charges he faces dating back to his time as home minister in Gujarat state.

Shah has denied criminal charges against him, including allegedly ordering extrajudicial killings carried out by police and running an extortion racket with police in Gujarat.

Like Modi, Shah rose through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a grassroots organisation seen as the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, committed to defending India's Hindu culture.

"The work of strengthening the BJP is still left. We cannot rule for long if the party's reach does not expand," Shah told the party faithful.

The BJP is gearing up for elections in four states, including western Maharashtra and tense Jammu and Kashmir, the country's only Muslim-majority state.

Political analyst Amulya Ganguli said Shah's appointment gave Modi "virtual control over the party and government".

Shah paid rich tribute to Modi, 63, saying only the prime minister could translate "into reality the nation's mounting aspirations for development".

"Friends, for any ideological movement, simply attaining power is not enough," Shah said.

"Now, it is our duty that our ideology should positively influence the thinking and work culture of our society," he said.