Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi, tipped to be India's next premier, sought to reassure Muslims on Saturday saying he would respect their religious traditions.
Protection of India's secular status has surfaced as a key election issue with critics worrying Modi's Hindu nationalist rhetoric could stoke religious tensions in a country where 13 percent of the 1.2-billion population is Muslim.
While India is majority Hindu, it also has one of the world's largest Muslim populations.
Modi, leading the campaign of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said he refused to don a skullcap presented to him by a Muslim cleric three years ago because he did not want "to hoodwink people".
"I believe in respecting traditions of all religions. But at the same time, I have to respect my own tradition as well although I respect all traditions. I can't hoodwink people by wearing such skullcaps.
"But I believe in taking action against those who show disrespect to other's caps... they should be given the strictest punishment," said Modi, chief minister of the western of Gujarat. Many Muslims wear skullcaps.
He added: "Every citizen has the same rights as Narendra Modi."
Modi, whose state has prospered under his leadership, paints himself as a pro-business reformist who alone can revive the economy of the world's largest democracy and opinion polls favour the BJP to win the elections, ousting the scandal-tainted Congress party after a decade of rule.
But Modi, a solitary figure remains a divisive figure after being accused of failing to swiftly curb 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in which at least 1,000 people died.
Modi has repeatedly rejected accusations of wrongdoing and investigations have never found grounds to charge him.
Modi said he favoured upward mobility for Muslims, who official figures show generally are poorer, more illiterate and have lower access to education and smaller representation in public and sector jobs than their Hindu peers.
He suggested Muslims should enjoy the fruits of India's economic progress.
"I believe their children should get better educations. They should have a Koran in one hand and a computer in the other hand," Modi said.
Rahul Gandhi, who is leading the left-leaning Congress's campaign, told India's Aaj Tak television station in a separate interview that Modi has a divisive agenda.
"He represents an ideology that's to make Indians fight one another," Rahul said.
India's election authorities Friday ordered police to investigate remarks by a Modi top aide allegedly aimed at inciting religious violence. Amit Shah has been in the eye of a storm since he reportedly told several Hindu leaders to seek "revenge" at the ballot box.
He was speaking in a part of northern Uttar Pradesh state torn by Hindu-Muslim violence last September that left about 50 people dead.