By Aditi Shah
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, leading the race to be India's next prime minister, on Saturday sought to blunt criticism that he is hostile to Muslims, the country's biggest minority group.
Modi, candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was asked by a television interviewer to explain his refusal to wear a skullcap offered to him by a Muslim cleric in the state of Gujarat three years ago.
"I live by my tradition which is why I would not like to wear a skullcap and pose for a photograph just to deceive people," Modi said, according to a transcript provided by the television station.
Hindus have no prescribed headgear, but the wearing of skullcaps is firmly within the Muslim tradition.
Hindu-Muslim relations have been a key issue in the Indian general election, with critics accusing Modi of not doing enough to protect Muslims in a spasm of religious violence in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 that left at least 1,000 dead.
About 13 percent of India's 1.2 billion people are Muslim. Critics say the Hindu nationalists harbor a deep-seated bias against the Muslims and that Modi's rise as the potential leader of a country as diverse as India is a threat to its secular foundations.
Modi, who is a three-time chief minister of Gujarat and a veteran member of the right-wing Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, denies that he or his party has any religious bias.
He talked about progress for Muslims, who are seen as lagging behind the Hindu majority in government jobs and in the broader economy.
"I believe that while those with skullcaps on their heads hold the Koran in one hand, they should also have a computer in the other hand," Modi said in the interview due to be broadcast later on Saturday.
Modi's BJP hopes to oust the ruling Congress Party of Rahul Gandhi, with its promises of jobs and new infrastructure.
On Friday Modi's closest aide, Amit Shah, was banned from election rallies and meetings after a series of speeches deemed to have stoked tensions with Muslims.
Shah is also awaiting trial over extra-judicial killings during the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was serving under Modi in the state government.
(Reporting by Aditi Shah; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Stephen Powell)