* Sonia Gandhi takes centre stage with appeal to avert
Congress election defeat
* Address makes no mention of opposition candidate Narendra
Modi, but clearly aimed at him
* Opposition BJP dismisses appearance as "farewell speech"
By Douglas Busvine
NEW DELHI, April 15 Sonia Gandhi, president of
India's ruling Congress party, has issued a rare direct appeal
to the nation not to return an opposition she said was motivated
by "hatred and falsehood" in the country's general election.
The three-minute TV address was aired at prime time on
Hindi-language channels just as an opinion poll showed for the
first time that an alliance led by the Hindu nationalist
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could win an outright majority.
"Their vision, clouded with hatred and falsehood, their
ideology, divisive and autocratic, will drive us to ...
ruination," the Italian-born widow of 1980s prime minister Rajiv
Gandhi said in the clip broadcast on Monday night.
Gandhi, 67, has taken centre stage in a bid to avert what
polls predict will be the worst-ever election defeat for
Congress, after a weak campaign led by her son and political
heir apparent, Rahul.
The BJP dismissed the address as "a farewell speech given in
desperation", driving home an advantage it has reaped from
recent accounts by former government insiders that Sonia Gandhi
had kept Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on a tight leash.
"She wants to give power to the people but did not give
power to the prime minister," Prakash Javadekar, the BJP's
national spokesman, told Reuters.
HEART AND SOUL
Sitting in a book-lined study and wearing a dark red Sari,
Sonia Gandhi did not mention the BJP's prime ministerial
candidate, Narendra Modi, by name.
But her comments clearly targeted his brand of Hindu
nationalism that she believes poses a threat to social peace in
India's diverse society of 1.2 billion, and at a BJP campaign
focused on Modi that critics say smacks of a personality cult.
"It is this, the very heart and soul of India, that we are
fighting to protect in this election, from those who seek to
change it, and to divide us," said Gandhi. "They want to impose
uniformity. They say: 'Just believe in me.'"
Modi, 63, is campaigning as a no-nonsense administrator who
has fought corruption and nurtured investment during more than a
decade as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.
But questions persist over an eruption of sectarian
bloodshed in Gujarat in 2002 in which more than 1,000 were
killed, mostly Muslims. Modi has denied accusations that he
failed to halt the riots, and a Supreme Court inquiry found that
he had no case to answer.
A senior Modi aide has, however, been banned from
campaigning by the election authorities for statements directed
at minority Muslims in Uttar Pradesh that promoted "hatred and
ill-will". The northern state, India's most populous, is a
must-win territory for any party staking a claim on power.
India's five-week general election, which kicked off on
April 7, has seen a high turnout so far in what some analysts
say is evidence of a "Modi wave" that could propel the BJP to
power for the first time in a decade.
The latest opinion poll, for private news channel NDTV,
showed the BJP and its allies winning 275 parliamentary seats,
enough for a three-seat majority. That was an increase of 16
seats from the last NDTV poll just over a week ago.
The biggest round of voting comes on Thursday, with 122
seats being contested in regions in the north, including Uttar
Pradesh, Karnataka in the south and Rajasthan in the northwest.
Voting ends on May 12, with results due on May 16.
(Additional reporting by Manoj Kumar; Writing by Douglas
Busvine; Editing by John Chalmers and Ron Popeski)