India's political rivals held rallies on Sunday on the eve of the world's biggest election, as front-runner for prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his Hindu nationalists battled accusations of stoking religious tensions to win votes.
Rahul Gandhi took to the stage in New Delhi and neighbouring Haryana state to implore voters to stick with his ruling Congress party, which is tipped to suffer a crushing defeat in the six-week ballot that starts Monday. That would put an end to the 10-year rule of the Congress party.
Gandhi’s arch-rival Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, was holding rallies on Sunday in the state of Uttar Pradesh where he has been campaigning on reviving the country's ailing economy. Modi's rallies across India have been attended by huge, enthusiastic crowds as opposed to those held by Gandhi.
But in the last days of Modi’s campaign a row erupted along religious lines, with Modi's right-hand man accused of stoking tensions against Muslims, who at 13 percent of the population are the country's largest religious minority.
Amit Shah reportedly told Hindu voters to seek "revenge" at the ballot box while speaking in a part of Uttar Pradesh hit by Hindu-Muslim violence last year that left some 50 people dead.
"This election is about voting out the government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus," Shah reportedly said on Friday.
Arvind Kejriwal, from the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi or Common Man Party, accused Modi on Saturday of the "politics of hatred".
'Out of context'
The Congress party has asked the Election Commission to order Shah's arrest and ban him from campaigning, with a party official accusing the BJP of making "horrible" statements and "creating animosity between communities".
The BJP said Shah's comments had been taken out of context and accused Congress of hypocrisy. "The Congress should be ashamed for that challenge to the EC. They themselves are asking for votes in the name of religion," BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman told AFP.
The election commission declined to comment.
Without referring specifically to the accusations against his party, Modi accused Sonia Gandhi, Congress president and Rahul’s mother, of failing to deliver on promises to improve the lives of Muslims, who at 13 percent of the population are India’s largest religious minority: “Madam Sonia, nearly 700 [religious] riots happened in the country in one year right under your nose.”
Weeks of voting
Voting will kick off in the two remote north-eastern states of Assam and Tripura, before spreading across the country of 814 million eligible voters in a staggered process. Results are due on May 16.
Despite opinion polls favouring the BJP, Congress party members are holding out hope.
"Congress is the only party that has resonance in every nook and cranny of India," senior party spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi told AFP.
Singhvi described Gandhi, the scion of India's most famous political dynasty and front-man for the Congress campaign, as a "superstar campaigner" who would return them to power.
BJP political campaign
Modi, the 63-year-old son of a tea-stall owner, has focused on economic reform and creating jobs, largely steering clear of promoting any Hindu nationalist agenda. “I have been touring the entire nation for last six months and talking about changing the future of India. I am talking about development, employment for youth. I am talking about respect for women,” Modi said.
Modi has highlighted the economy in part because current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, a coalition led by the Congress Party and called the United Progressive Alliance, has been criticised for falling growth and rising prices.
Opinion polls - fallible in the past and famously wrong when Congress won in 2004 - show the BJP likely to emerge as the biggest party in the next 543-member parliament.
But the BJP is forecast to fall short of a majority, meaning another coalition will need to be stitched together comprising India's numerous regional parties.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-04-06