By Annie Banerji
AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - 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 hardline 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.
These days there are no signs of the terror that gripped Naroda Patiya, a Muslim-dominated slum in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, on February 28, 2002. Children play with goats and chickens in cobble-stoned alleys, while women bask in the sun on the porches of their tiny green, pink and blue houses.
Still, people cannot forget the thick smoke that engulfed their neighborhood, the shattering of glass, the gunshots, and the 95 relatives and friends who were hacked, beaten or burnt to death in the highly organized attack, the worst incident of bloodletting during the riots.
School teacher Nazir Khan remembers hiding with his wife in an underground water tank for over four hours as the mob looted his home, smashed furniture and set his house ablaze.
"I could hear their muffled voices saying 'we must finish those leeches today', while we almost choked on the smoke," said Khan. "I always thought these scenes happened in movies, but I was wrong. Each traumatic second of that day is etched in my mind."
One of the most prominent figures in court was Babu Bajrangi, who was accused of disemboweling a pregnant woman with a sword. He was a leader of Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of a Hindu nationalist organization affiliated with the BJP. Its extremist activities have sometimes embarrassed the party.
One of Bajrang Dal's goals is to build a temple on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was torn down by Hindu fanatics in 1992. The razing of the mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya sparked religious riots in which some 2,000 people were killed.
Although some BJP leaders were among the crowd of zealots in Ayodhya, after that incident the party sought to moderate its "Hindutva" (a word literally meaning 'Hindu-ness') philosophy, and, after removing the mosque-temple dispute from its manifesto, it won enough allies to form a coalition government and rule the country between 1998 and 2004.
The "acceptable face" of the BJP was Atal Behari Vajpayee, the prime minister whose image still appears on party banners. Since then, the party has not produced a leader with both charisma and appeal that goes beyond urban middle class voters.
MODI VIEWED WITH SUSPICION
Modi, 61, certainly has ambition and personality. He is highly respected by prominent businessmen for his good governance of Gujarat since 2002, and the long economic boom there for which his liberalization and investment drive is credited.
He is widely expected to win state assembly elections in Gujarat later this year, and opinion polls show that, if it were up to urban Indians, Modi would be the next prime minister -- not Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and presumed leader-in-waiting of the ruling Congress party.
Modi's problem is that he is viewed with suspicion by many voters, not least Muslims, who represent more than 13 percent of the electorate.
"Sure, no one denies that he's made our state prosper," said Saleem R. Sheikh, who lost his 27-year-old son in the Gujarat riots. "You have big companies here, big buildings, but can that overshadow what happened? Will that money bring my son back? Who are you trying to fool Mr. Modi?"
Last week's court ruling, which highlighted the political affiliation of the main culprits in the Gujarat killing spree, could make it more difficult for the BJP to win the support of parties it would need to form a coalition government in 2014. Some of those politicians already have serious doubts about the idea of a Prime Minister Modi.
Even foreign governments are wary. Modi has been denied a visa to the United States and in recent years many diplomats have gone out of their way to avoid meeting him.
"The verdict is a further blow to his prime ministerial ambitions," said Ganguli. "The dilemma for the BJP is that the only candidate they have is a hugely divisive figure."
(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Magnowski)