India opinion polls point to big win for BJP leader Modi
Indian politicians hit the campaign trail for a final day yesterday before the start of a marathon nine-phase election, expected to vault the right-wing Hindu nationalist opposition to power.
Newspapers carried full front-page ads with a photograph of Narendra Modi, the fiery prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) carrying the party's slogan: "Time for a Change, Time for Modi."
Politicians had their last chance to woo voters yesterday with today being an official campaign break before the first stage of voting kicks off in the northeast tomorrow.
It winds up six weeks later in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, home to the Taj Mahal.
Indian opinion polls, while notoriously unreliable, point to a strong win by Modi, 63, a tea stall owner's son and a charismatic politician who has said only he can revive the country's once red-hot economy.
Modi, elected three times as chief minister of the prosperous western state of Gujarat, has been rapidly increasing his hold on the BJP's national apparatus, sidelining the party's old guard.
Modi's centralisation of power has led prominent historian Ramachandran Guha to fret about what he called the politician's tendency to "self-aggrandise", a trait he said was "not entirely becoming in a prospective prime minister".
Modi is also seen as divisive because of his hardline Hindu politics in a country where 13 per cent of the 1.2 billion population is Muslim.
Now, however, the only question appears to be the size of the BJP's victory over the scandal-tainted ruling Congress at the end of the nine-round ballot - in which over 800 million can vote, making it the world's largest democratic exercise.
A survey by the television channel NDTV gave the BJP 259 seats. Congress, led in the campaign by Rahul Gandhi, 43, whose diffidence about taking up his inheritance as scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty has won him the nickname of the "reluctant prince", was seen grabbing just 123 seats.
The winning party needs 272 seats for a majority, but with alliances, the BJP is expected to reach that number when results come in on May 16.
The secular left-leaning Congress, which has led India for a decade and whose last term was marked by a sharply slowing economy and massive corruption scandals, won backing on Friday from the imam of India's largest mosque, Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari, who said "secularism is the need of the hour".
Modi is backed by business leaders who admire what they say is his corporate-friendly administration of Gujarat.
But critics are worried about his Hindu nationalist rhetoric, fearing it could stoke religious tensions, and recall the 2002 riots that swept Gujarat in which at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were slaughtered.