Two polls released hours before voting starts in India’s general election show the Hindu nationalist opposition set for a huge victory, with the ruling Indian National Congress party facing a debacle.
The two main contenders in the increasingly bitter battle to lead the world’s biggest democracy intensified their campaigning — and their personal duel — before the first of 815 million eligible voters head to the polls today.
One poll suggested that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the controversial 63-year-old prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), might come close to an outright majority. A second said the BJP would miss a majority by about 30 seats in the powerful 545-seat lower house.
India has been ruled by coalition governments for decades and debate among analysts in Delhi now largely centers on the margin of the BJP victory, not on its likelihood. The polls showed support for Modi’s rival, 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, slipping. The ruling center-left Congress party, which has ruled India for all but 13 years since it won independence from Britain in 1947, now appears to be facing its worst ever defeat.
Gandhi is the Congress party vice president and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — one of the world’s most famous political families. The former management consultant, who is widely criticized as distant and inexperienced, has seemed unable to counter his opponent’s confident campaign.
One Congress minister last week said that the party’s aim was now “stopping The Man,” a reference to Modi.
Vinod Mehta, a Delhi analyst and journalist, said that dynasties must deliver to thrive.
“These are bad days for the dynasty... The question now is: What sort of prime minister will Modi be?” he said.
One of the most polarizing politicians in India for years, Modi came from humble origins to win power in the western state of Gujarat before being projected onto the national stage.
Critics see him as an extremist who, as chief minister in 2002, allegedly allowed or encouraged mobs to attack Muslims in towns across Gujarat after a lethal fire supposedly started by Muslims on a train full of Hindu pilgrims.
Modi denied the allegations and investigators cleared him of any direct involvement in violence, but his reputation still concerns many.
The former senior organizer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a nationalist and religious revivalist organization, Modi is also accused of an authoritarian style of government at odds with India’s tradition of political compromise.
Others, including some of the most powerful industrialists in India, say Modi is an honest and decisive administrator who has introduced policies that have encouraged development in his state and could be reproduced elsewhere if he were prime minister.
“My gut feeling is that Modi is not a fool and realizes the difference between governing Gujarat and governing India, and that if he tries to impose one man’s rule on the whole country he won’t last very long,” Mehta said.
Congress complained on Saturday to India’s Election Commission about comments by Amit Shah, an associate of Modi, in the key state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), which suffered sectarian violence last year.
“In Uttar Pradesh, especially western UP, it is an election for honor. It is an election to take revenge for the insult. It an election to teach a lesson to those who have committed injustice,” Shah reportedly told community leaders.