By Sruthi Gottipati and Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Hindu nationalist leader and possible prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi triggered an uproar on Friday over a remark he made in an interview about deadly communal riots in Gujarat state in 2002.
Modi, chief minister of western Gujarat state and head of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's election campaign, was asked in an interview with Reuters whether he regretted the violence.
Modi compared his feelings to the occupant of a car involved in an accident.
If "someone else is driving a car and we're sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I'm a chief minister or not, I'm a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad."
Modi's comment provoked widespread outrage from political opponents and dominated television news broadcasts. The furor underscored how the riots - in which at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were burned and hacked to death - still cast a long shadow over India.
The ruling Congress party, which is hoping to win a third straight term in office in the next general election, called a news conference to criticize Modi for the puppy analogy and demanded that he apologies.
Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, the most prominent Muslim in the cabinet, said he felt "very bad and sad for the country and for humanity to have somebody who thinks that he owes nothing by way of explanation, remorse and not even of some level of accountability".
The Samajwadi Party which governs Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and home to a large percentage of the country's Muslims, said Modi should apologies as soon as possible "else the repercussions are going to be really harmful".
Modi's office said there had been a "gross distortion" of the chief minister's remark.
"In response to a question related to the unfortunate incident of 2002, Mr. Modi's response only shows a heightened sensitivity on his part where he chose an anecdote to explain the grief that a human being would experience on even the hurt of a dog," his office said in a statement.
"To talk about an incident that resulted in loss of human lives and not feel the grief is unthinkable."
Human rights groups and political rivals have long alleged that Modi, a Hindu and a dominant force in BJP, allowed or even actively encouraged the 2002 attacks. Modi has always vehemently denied the charge, and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.
Modi has always insisted that he did all that he could to stop the violence. "Up till now, we feel that we used our full strength to set out to do the right thing," he told Reuters.
A special investigation team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the role of Modi and others in the violence said in a 541-page report in 2012 it could find no evidence to prosecute the chief minister.
Analysts have said it is unclear how much of a factor the 2002 riots will be in the next general election, which is due by May 2014 but could be called as early as November.
Modi, praised by business leaders for his state's booming economy, is widely seen as his party's strongest candidate to become prime minister.
(Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Ron Popeski)