By Frank Jack Daniel and Mayank Bhardwaj
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Indian government stepped up its criticism of leading opposition prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on Tuesday, painting him as a dangerous extremist and comparing his rise to the birth of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Modi's critics have long sought to associate the Hindu nationalist leader with fascism and blame him for anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that killed at least 1,000 people. He denies any wrongdoing in the riots and a Supreme Court investigation found no evidence to prosecute him.
The broadsides from two senior ministers follow a series of large political rallies by Modi and a string of opinion polls forecasting a poor performance by the government in state elections starting next week and a general election expected by April.
The ruling Congress party's own campaign has yet to pick up much steam.
Jairam Ramesh, a senior cabinet minister close to the leadership of the Congress party, said Modi's career reminded him of the rise of the Third Reich, the strongest comments yet by a minister of his rank.
"Political autocracy, social divisiveness and economic liberalism. That's Mr. Modi reduced to three dimensions," Ramesh told Reuters. "Exactly what created the autobahns and the Volkswagens in the 30s but also created the disaster of Germany.
"India right now in 2013 - I would say we are going through what Germany went through in 1932."
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which ruled with a moderate prime minister between 1998 and 2004, says Congress has a worse record on autocracy, including a period when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended democratic rights in the 1970s.
"They keep going on about fascism and Hitlerism, rather than addressing the issue of the day - misgovernance," BJP spokeswoman Meenakshi Lekhi said in response to the minister's comments.
In large rallies across the country, Modi has been campaigning on his record of fast economic growth as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, promising to create jobs and help India become a global power, while attacking the government for a string of corruption scandals.
He contrasts his modest background as a tea-boy and political outsider to the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty that runs the Congress party. Last month, bombs exploded at one of his rallies, killing six people and raising worries about his safety. Investigators blame Islamic militants for the attack.
Modi has close ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing group that sees India as primarily a Hindu country, a view that many consider divisive in the multi-religious nation. The group has long backed the BJP but some commentators believe it is now taking a larger role in politics.
Ramesh said the 2014 election seemed to be between Congress and the RSS, a view echoed by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram on Tuesday in an interview with a Hindi TV station in which he criticized the BJP's choice of candidate for prime minister.
"We think that the RSS ideology is a dangerous ideology," Chidambaram said.
An opinion poll conducted by Cvoter and published last month predicted Congress would win its lowest ever number of parliamentary seats in the 2014 election. Since then the party has called for such polls to be banned, calling them unscientific.
If that poll proved correct, Modi could form the next government, but he would need to win over coalition partners.
(Additional reporting by Jo Winterbottom and Shyamantha Asokan; Editing by John Chalmers and Nick Macfie)