India polls: Bitterly fought election campaign enters final day

A crowd of supporters of India election frontrunner Narendra Modi cheer during a speech in a political rally by Modi in Mirzapur on May 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A crowd of supporters of India election frontrunner Narendra Modi cheer during a speech in a political rally by Modi in Mirzapur on May 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Campaigning in India's bitterly fought general election is set to end on Saturday ahead of next week's final voting with the Hindu nationalist opposition already scenting victory.

"We'll get a clear majority," said Mr Amit Shah, a close aide to charismatic but divisive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi, tipped to be India's next prime minister.

Mr Shah said the electorate had "come out to support the BJP irrespective of caste, religion (and) age group", seeking to dispel notions that the party's muscular Hindu nationalism was a voter stumbling block.

Mr Rahul Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party, is due to address voters on Saturday in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi, the constituency contested by Mr Modi and one of the areas in electorally pivotal Uttar Pradesh state voting in the final phase.

While the broader national battle is between Congress and the BJP, in Varanasi it has been portrayed as a "David-and-Goliath" clash between upstart anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal and Mr Modi. The 63-year-old BJP leader, who has made myriad campaign stops - even appearing as a hologram to supporters - is set to make a final whirlwind round of visits on Saturday to rally support.

Formal results of the largest elections ever staged - with 814 million eligible voters - come next Friday. Investors, confident of a BJP win they hope will lift economic growth from a decade low, drove the benchmark Bombay stock index to a record peak on Friday.

Mr Shah forecast the BJP and allies would get 300 seats in the 543-seat parliament, while opinion polls also suggest the BJP is on track to end its decade in opposition.

In the last days of the campaign, Mr Modi has sought to cast off his polarising reputation. "I believe in one India, the best India," said Mr Modi, chief minister of thriving Gujarat state, who is popular among business and middle-class voters frustrated by economic slowdown, high inflation and corruption scandals.

Still, 12 years ago, few would have guessed Mr Modi would be in line to be premier after riots swept Gujarat during his early time as chief minister, killing at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. The BJP leader was never charged with wrongdoing but many critics charge he did too little to stop the violence.

The Gandhi family has been making a last-ditch push for votes with Mr Rahul, his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi all on the hustings. South Asia's most famous political dynasty, which has given India three prime ministers, has steered Congress and dominated the nation's politics since independence in 1947.

But Mumbai bookies reckon the likelihood of Mr Rahul, who has led the Congress campaign, becoming premier is so miniscule they have stopped taking bets, according to local media.

Mr Rahul, groomed for the Congress leadership by his mother, has been dubbed the "reluctant crown prince", preferring a backroom role to government posts. As a campaigner, local media judged him uninspiring.

His sister Priyanka, 42, regarded as more politically gifted, has drawn huge media attention as she waded into the campaign in the final weeks, making blistering attacks on the BJP and calling the election a battle to preserve India's secular foundations.

While India's 1.25 billion population is mainly Hindu, 13 per cent are Muslim. Still, if Congress loses, few observers are writing its obituary, having seen the party rebound before from crashing defeats.

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