India's opposition Congress party enlists Bollywood star power as vote approaches

Congress party supporters carrying a poster of Indian National Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, during an election rally in Bokakhat, Assam state, on April 3, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's opposition Congress party unveiled a slick Bollywood-inspired theme song Sunday (April 7), bringing celebrity muscle to its campaign as polling showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity soaring ahead of the start of voting next week.

Congress launched the track by superstar Bollywood composer Javed Akhtar as it announced its party slogan, "Justice for All", putting the final touches to its campaign before the biggest election in history gets underway.

There are 900 million Indians eligible to vote in the poll, which starts Thursday and lasts nearly six weeks, with results to be announced on May 23.

Modi and his main rival, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, have been criss-crossing the country speaking at huge campaign rallies since the poll was announced in early March.

The Congress theme song reinforces the opposition's campaign message that Modi has mismanaged the economy for struggling farmers, unemployed youth and ordinary families.

"We advise Narendra Modi not to doubt the intelligence of the people of this country," Congress spokesperson Anand Sharma told reporters in New Delhi on Sunday.

"They remember what you promised in 2014. He should speak about the real issues."

But Congress - which ruled India for much of its modern history but was routed in the last election - faces a formidable opponent in Modi, who has confidently told supporters he will return with another thumping victory.

Polling released in recent days suggests the Hindu nationalist leader is even more popular now than 2014, when his Bharatiya Janata Party won an outright majority, the first in India in decades.

A pre-election survey by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found 43 per cent of respondents wanted Modi to return as prime minister.

Only 24 per cent wanted Gandhi as leader, found the poll of 10,010 respondents conducted in the last week of March and published Friday.

Researchers found that Modi had surged on the back of three policies: job quotas for poorer Indians, cash handouts to farmers and bombing Pakistan after a suicide attack in Kashmir.

India launched the first air strikes inside Pakistan in decades after at least 40 troops were killed in a militant attack.

New Delhi blamed Islamabad for backing the militants behind the attack, a claim Pakistan denies.

The survey also found far fewer voters had heard about Gandhi's promise to pay a minimum guaranteed income to India's poorest citizens.

Congress has also not found traction over its allegation that Modi corruptly arranged a fighter jet deal to benefit a billionaire friend, the poll showed.

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