March 12, 2019 / 2:19 PM / 7 days ago

Main Indian opposition pivots back to jobs after Modi gets boost on security issues

GANDHINAGAR, India/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s main opposition Congress party switched its campaign focus back to economic and social issues such as jobs on Tuesday as pollsters said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election bid has been boosted by hostilities with neighboring Pakistan.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a leader of India's main opposition Congress party, addresses her party's supporters during a public meeting in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

“How will the youth get jobs? How will women feel safer, and move forward? What will be done for farmers?,” Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said in her first speech since joining the party as a general secretary earlier this year. “These are the election issues.”

Her brother, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, called unemployment the most important issue in the general election, which starts on April 11. Thousands of party supporters clapped and cheered as the siblings spoke at a rally in Gandhinagar, the capital of Modi’s home state, Gujarat.

Pollsters have said Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has an early advantage after India’s armed forces clashed with those of arch-rival Pakistan last month.

Before then, the prime minister had been under pressure over unemployment and rising problems for farmers. India’s unemployment rate shot up to 7.2 percent in February, the highest since September 2016, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The BJP lost power in three states late last year.

The jobs numbers took a back seat after a Feb. 14 suicide car bomb that killed 40 Indian security personnel in the disputed region of Kashmir and that was claimed by a Pakistan-based Islamist militant group. In response, India said its warplanes bombed a militant camp inside Pakistan, which responded the next day with an aerial attack of its own.

Amid doubts about the success of the Indian strike, opposition parties including Congress said earlier this month they would launch a united attack on Modi for what they called his politicization of the armed forces since the confrontation with Pakistan.

Pollsters had said questioning Modi on national security rather than focusing on everyday issues could backfire on the prime minister’s opponents. BJP leaders have said the government’s economic record and the tough stance on Pakistan will help it retain power.

Zakir Hussain, who traveled about 85 km (55 miles) to attend the Gandhinagar rally, said he voted for the BJP in the last general election in 2014 but was now impressed by Congress.

“Congress has fulfilled the promises it made before the elections,” Hussain said, referring to the waiving of farm loans in three states where the party won back power from the BJP.

“So I will vote for Congress and they will form the government this time.”

Results from the election in the world’s second most populous country are due on May 23.

Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Krishna N. Das and Frances Kerry

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