Indians flock to opposition leader Modi as campaign builds steam

Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat and Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi gestures as he greets supporters upon his arrival at The Bhadrakali Mandir in Ahmedabad on November 4, 2013, on the fourth
Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat and Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi gestures as he greets supporters upon his arrival at The Bhadrakali Mandir in Ahmedabad on November 4, 2013, on the fourth day of The Diwali Festival. Mr Modi, whose rally in Bihar on October 27, was the subject of multiple bomb attacks, has been campaigning to topple the ruling Congress party since he was named last month as the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate for the national elections. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP 

BAHRAICH, India (Reuters) - No matter that Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi's election rally on Friday was held in a field outside a remote town not far from the border with Nepal.

Still they came, on foot, clinging to the back of tractors, crammed into rickety buses.

In the end up to 50,000 people gathered before a stage decorated with the orange colours of Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), to hear the 63-year-old harangue the government and encourage them to dream of a better future.

Admiration for Mr Modi bordered on a personality cult in Bahraich, a small town surrounded by fertile fields in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people and a crucial battleground for anyone wanting to control parliament.

"If he becomes prime minister, he'll bring about a sea change in the countryside," said Mr Atul Kumar Singh, a student.

"He's an honest politician and I'm 110 percent sure he'll be the next prime minister," the 21-year-old added.

Mr Modi's campaign has focused on fighting corruption, seen by Indians as the source of many of their problems, and replicating the economic success he enjoyed as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, which many voters in Uttar Pradesh openly envy.

That, combined with fatigue at 10 years of Congress rule, economic stagnation and a weak response so far to Modi's vigorous campaign, has made him the early favourite to replace Manmohan Singh as the leader of India's 1.2 billion people.

"Things are going so badly," said Mr Ravi Kumar Yadav, 25, a farmer, who until recently supported one of Uttar Pradesh's main regional parties but now backs the BJP.

"You can't get anything done without paying a bribe, and the price for everything has gone through the roof."

Nationally, Mr Modi remains a divisive candidate tarnished by riots in Gujarat 11 years ago, near the beginning of his stewardship, in which more than 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims.

He has vehemently denied he failed to stop the violence, and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.

That has not been enough to convince India's 150 million to 200 million Muslim population, and, although some 40 per cent of people living in Bahraich are Muslims - well above the national average - their presence at the Modi rally was negligible.

After arriving at the venue in a helicopter to cheers, Mr Modi renewed his attack on politicians he said were in it for personal gain, and vowed to make them accountable if he and his BJP were returned to power.

"They know that if our BJP government is formed in Delhi, those who are responsible for ruining this nation will end up where they deserve to be," he shouted, eliciting loud applause.

"Enough is enough. Now the time has come for them (Congress) to go."

Speaking without notes, he joked, jumped nimbly from national issues to local ones, and promised to do with the economy of Uttar Pradesh what he had done in Gujarat.

He said he would wipe out terrorism, after six people were killed by blasts at a Modi rally in Patna last month, which authorities blamed on the home-grown Indian Mujahideen group that holds him responsible for the 2002 bloodshed.

And he took another swipe at Mr Rahul Gandhi, who is likely to lead Congress' fight against him in the run-up to elections that must be held by May.

A scion of the dynasty that has ruled India for most of its independence from Britain in 1947, Gandhi has so far failed to match Mr Modi's mass appeal, and risks falling further behind as his challenger criss-crosses the country in search of votes.

Mr Modi has cast the political battle as one between a "prince" and a man of the people who worked up through the ranks from humble roots, striking a chord with many Indians.