India's hardline nationalist politician Narendra Modi launched a stinging attack Sunday on the ruling Congress party, setting the stage for a pitched political battle in general elections next year.
Modi, tipped to be the prime ministerial candidate of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blamed Congress for the troubles facing the country at a meeting in New Delhi to set his party's election strategy.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress-led coalition has been buffeted by a slowing economy, high inflation and a series of corruption allegations.
"Congress has sacrificed the country for one family," Modi, 62, told the meeting, referring to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has given the country three premiers since independence from Britain in 1947.
"The Congress party is incapable of taking the country forward... the prime minister is nothing but a puppet of the Gandhi family," Modi, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, said to cheers from his supporters.
The Congress rejected Modi's comments as "self-propaganda".
"Manmohan Singh is the prime minister of the country and not just of the Congress. His name should be taken with respect. His honour is the country's honour," said party spokesman Rashid Alvi.
The Congress and the BJP are poised to go head-to-head in elections in May next year but have yet to name their candidates for prime minister.
However, political observers have been predicting a showdown between Modi and Rahul Gandhi -- the 42-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty -- with the 80-year-old Singh unlikely to lead the Congress coalition again.
Modi, whose humble roots are in sharp contrast to Gandhi's privileged upbringing, remains a hugely divisive figure.
He was at the helm in Gujarat during religious riots in 2002 in which some 2,000 people -- mainly Muslims -- were killed.
One of Modi's former ministers was jailed for life for instigating the killing, but all investigations have cleared Modi of personal responsibility.
Modi has grown in stature since his third successive win in state elections last year. His main selling point is the economic success of Gujarat, which has enjoyed annual growth rates of between 10 and 12 percent since 2007.
In his speech Sunday, Modi lashed out at Congress for its "skewed" economic policies.
"There is talk of economic reform, but is this reform? Administrative measures to correct bad governance should not be taken as economic reform," he charged.