NEW DELHI - Ruling Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi warned Saturday of an India divided by caste and creed if the Hindu nationalist opposition wins power, as campaigning ended in the nation’s multi-stage election.
Gandhi sought to muster a final show of Congress strength in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi with the party struggling to snatch victory from the jaws of a widely forecast election defeat by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP ‘only wants to divide people, make people fight each other,’ Gandhi told a rally in temple-studded Varanasi, one of the last constituencies due to vote in Monday’s final day of balloting.
The results of the marathon election will be known Friday. Varanasi is being contested by Narendra Modi, a charismatic but divisive politician who is tipped to lead the BJP to power after a decade in opposition and be India’s next prime minister.
Modi, an indefatigable campaigner who has travelled 300,000 kilometres (180,000 miles) in the last eight months speaking to 437 rallies — in addition to addressing 1,350 rallies as a hologram — according to the BJP. Modi’s high-tech campaign is believed to mark the first time holograms have been used to reach voters in an Indian election campaign. Modi, projecting himself as a political outsider who will overhaul India’s political status quo, launched a blistering attack Saturday on the Gandhi dynasty — a dominant governing force for most of India’s history since independence from Britain.
- ‘Mother-son government’ -
Modi, 63, derisively referred to Congress campaign leader Gandhi and his party president mother, Sonia, as the ‘mother-son government’ and appealed for a ‘good, strong mandate in Delhi to work for the people.’ ‘People, till the time you end these dynastic politics, things won’t improve,’ Modi said to cheers in Robertsganj, another part of politically pivotal Uttar Pradesh state going to the polls Monday.
The BJP was already scenting victory, predicting ‘a clear majority’ nationally. Top party organiser Amit Shah forecast the BJP and allies would get 300 seats in the 543-seat parliament. Indian opinion polls, while sometimes spectacularly wrong in the past, also suggest the Hindu nationalists are set to score a strong victory.
Shah said the electorate had supported the BJP ‘irrespective of caste (and) religion’, seeking to dispel notions that Modi’s muscular Hindu nationalism was a stumbling block for voters. In the last days of the campaign, Modi has tried to cast off the BJP’s religion-based image, pushing an agenda of good governance and economic growth in contrast to the left-leaning Congress’s populist pitch.
‘I believe in one India, the best India,’ said Modi, chief minister of thriving Gujarat state, who is popular among business and middle-class voters frustrated by a sharp economic slowdown, high inflation and corruption scandals. Still, 12 years ago, few would have guessed Modi would be in line to be premier after riots swept Gujarat during his early time as chief minister, killing at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.
The BJP leader was never charged with wrongdoing but many critics allege he did too little to stop the bloodshed. The Gandhi family has been making a last-ditch campaign push with Rahul, his mother and sister, Priyanka, all on the hustings. On Saturday, Rahul reaffirmed Congress’s commitment to ‘empowerment of the poor’, charging that a BJP government would not ‘benefit anyone but business’. South Asia’s most famous political dynasty has given India three premiers since independence. But bookies reckon chances of Rahul becoming premier are so minuscule they’ve stopped taking bets, according to local media.
Investors, confident of a BJP win, have driven India’s benchmark share index to record highs. Few observers, though, expect the BJP to reach the magic 272 number needed for a majority by itself.
Many anticipate a period of fierce horsetrading as regional heavyweights trade parliamentary support for political concessions. A few market players have voiced concerns of a massive selloff if the BJP fares worse than expected and political instability ensues.
Rahul, groomed for Congress leadership by his mother has been dubbed the ‘reluctant crown prince’, preferring a backroom role. Local media has judged his campaign performance uninspiring. Priyanka, 42, regarded as more politically gifted, has made blistering attacks on the BJP and called the election a ‘fight for the heart’ of Hindu-majority but constitutionally secular India. While India’s 1.25-billion population is mainly Hindu, Muslims comprise 13 percent. If Congress loses, few observers are writing its obituary, having seen the party rebound before from crashing defeats.