Polls show India's BJP to sweep May elections, Congress to suffer worst defeat

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks set to form the next government in looming elections, while the ruling Congress is headed for its worst-ever defeat, polls published on Saturday suggested.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is poised to win between 211 and 231 seats in the 552-seat lower decision-making House of Parliament in the elections due by May, according to one opinion poll. On its own, the BJP, led by fiery hardliner Narendra Modi would win 190-210 seats, said the poll by TV network CNN-IBN in tandem with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

While the BJP-led coalition's projected tally is still short of the halfway mark required to form the government in the Indian Parliament, it is still a major boost from the BJP's present seat tally of 112. With other potential allies of the BJP also projected to fare well in the elections, the party would hold the whip hand in Parliament, the poll suggested.

The graft-tainted Congress, which has ruled India for the last decade, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, would win just 92 to 108 seats, down from 204 it holds now, the CNN-IBN poll said.

Pollsters have been predicting a defeat for Congress, with voters troubled by high inflation, sharply slowing economic growth that has hit jobs and a string of corruption scandals. But Mr Modi, a pro-business reformer with a reputation for running a relatively clean administration in his home state of Gujarat, is also known for his strong Hindu nationalist leanings.

Mr Modi, 63, chief minister of western Gujarat state, is accused by critics of turning a blind eye to deadly anti-Muslim riots in his state in 2002.

Another poll by India Today-Cvoter forecast the BJP would emerge as the biggest party after the elections with 188 seats, while the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance would win 212 seats. The polls gave no details of their methodology.

Congress had been expected to name Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi, 43, as its candidate for prime minister. Earlier this month, however, Congress president Sonia Gandhi spurned pleas from supporters to project her son Rahul as the candidate to replace Dr Singh, 81, who is slated to step down.

Rahul, who has been a diffident performer on the political stage, will remain the party's chief strategist for the elections.

Congress has pitched the elections as a battle to save the Hindu-majority nation's secular identity in the face of the BJP's Hindu nationalist politics, seen by critics as divisive in the nation where 13 per cent of the 1.2 billion population is Muslim.