AMETHI, India (Reuters) - India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty faced a battle on Wednesday to defend one of its bastions from increasingly confident opposition leader Narendra Modi in the penultimate round of the country’s five-week general election.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sensing that its coalition could well be within reach of claiming a parliamentary majority, has ramped up a crusade against Sonia Gandhi and her 43-year-old son Rahul who lead the ruling Congress party.
The son of a tea-stall owner has made it his mission to end the grip on politics of the Gandhis, descendents of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who have ruled for most of the time since independence in 1947. On Monday, he poured scorn on the family for failing to modernize India.
The Gandhis stand from two family bastions in Uttar Pradesh state, home to one in six of India’s 815 million voters. Anger over poverty and a collapse of services could weaken Rahul’s grip on the rural seat of Amethi that was voting on Wednesday.
P.D. Pandey, a long-time Congress supporter, said he had switched to the BJP, if only to give a wake-up call to Rahul.
“There are 10 votes in my family. Six of them will go to Modi, four for Rahul. He will win but we will make him cry before he wins,” said Pandey, who queued in temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) to vote at a local college.
“Then he will understand the pain. We struggle every day for everything, from buying vegetables to sending our children to private schools,” said Pandey, echoing complaints by locals that government schools have shut.
India’s eighth round of voting sees 64 seats being contested. Fifteen are in Uttar Pradesh, which sends the largest contingent of 80 for the 543 seats up for grabs in staggered voting for the lower house of parliament.
A further 25 are at stake in Andhra Pradesh, which helped the Congress-led government to a majority in 2009, but may now swing decisively away amid anger over the handling of a split of the southeastern coastal state into two parts.
Himalayan villagers trekked to the polls in Himachal Pradesh, while there was more violence further north in mainly-Muslim Kashmir, where many separatist sympathizers are observing a poll boycott. In one incident, a reserve policeman was injured by a bomb planted at a voting station, police said.
BJP sources say internal polling shows that the party has made big gains so far, while one survey this week for NDTV news suggested that the BJP may double its share of the vote in the areas of Uttar Pradesh that have yet to be contested.
Modi made a campaign stop in Amethi on Monday to launch a personal attack on Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. He seeks to crown his bid for power in the holy Ganges city of Varanasi, which votes on the election’s final day next Monday. Results are due May 16.
While the BJP itself expects to fall short of the 272 seats it needs for a majority, party sources forecast a minimum seat count of 200 seats. In the best case, they forecast 240, which would be enough, with the BJP’s allies, for a working majority.
Pundits caution however that results are hard to predict in India’s first-past-the-post electoral system. And, although a record number of Indians may vote, higher turnout has in the past not always been linked to opposition gains.
Modi’s advance could be tempered by identity politics, with his Hindu-centric ideology limiting the BJP’s voter potential across swathes of India.
His handling as chief minister of Gujarat of Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people died has also entrenched suspicion among minority groups, especially Muslims, who make up 13 percent of the population.
Modi, 63, has denied wrongdoing and a Supreme Court inquiry found no case to answer.
“Modi is playing the politics of anger, this is not the culture of Amethi,” said Mohammad Shafi, an electrician and a Muslim.
Shafi said there could have been more development in Amethi, but the threat from Modi was far greater. “He couldn’t protect people in Gujarat, how can he protect the rest of the country?”
Local Congress agents arrived at the polling station asking for the number of votes that had been cast.
“There is some nervousness about the Modi wave that BJP claims, but we will win,” said Sethu Prasad Shukla, a local Congress party official. “The people of Amethi are not going to break their ties with the family.”
Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Ron Popeski