BANGALORE, INDIA (AFP) - The Congress party, which has dominated Indian politics in the seven decades since independence, will stage a last stand against Prime Minister Narendra Modi when a key southern state goes to the polls Saturday (May 12).
Karnataka, home to 60 million people and the wealthy global IT hub of Bangalore, is the last major bastion held by Congress under leader Rahul Gandhi.
Saturday's high-stakes vote comes after one of the most bitter campaigns in years with Gandhi and Modi slugging it out at rival rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of people.
"It's a do-or-die battle for the Congress party," said Sandeep Shastri, vice chancellor of Jain University and coordinator of Lokniti, a political research group.
Since his landslide national win in 2014 the Modi juggernaut has stormed northern India, claiming around a dozen crushing state victories.
Congress has a slim majority in the 224-member Karnataka assembly and all the signs are that Saturday's vote will be close. The result will be announced Tuesday.
MODI SEEKS BREAKTHROUGH
Defeat would see Congress effectively giving up its claim to lead any political alliance against Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a general election next year. Its campaign finances would also take a battering.
The party holds only three other states - Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram - which together account for just 2.5 per cent of India's 1.25 billion population.
"They have been systematically losing power in every state where they have ruled since 2014 and Karnataka is an opportunity to stem the trend," Shastri said.
The vote is just as important for Modi, whose BJP and allies now rule states accounting for about 70 per cent of the national population. He still does not have a southern foothold however.
Many politicians from non-Hindi speaking southern states accuse Modi's government of a spending bias toward its stronghold in the Hindi-speaking north.
"Karnataka is seen as gateway for BJP's entry in the south," Shastri said.
Nistula Hebbar, political editor of The Hindu newspaper, said a Congress win in Karnataka could give an important "morale boost" to the opposition.
"There has been some momentum in anti-Modi politics and if the Congress wins, it will be an important milestone before national elections," she said.
"For Congress, it's their biggest and most prosperous state but for the BJP, which has already peaked electorally elsewhere in the country, it's important to perform well in southern India which has 130 national parliamentary seats for 2019," Hebbar said.
At rallies, an acerbic Modi has hit out at Gandhi's Italian ancestry and accused his family of corruption.
The BJP campaign has also sought to mobilise national pride by highlighting Modi's increased presence on the international stage, the growing economy and a clampdown on corruption.
The latest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, whose family has produced three prime ministers since 1947, has hit back by highlighting scandals under Modi's government.
"Congress has tried to de-emphasise leadership and focused on local issues and local perspectives," Shastri said.
Karnataka's chief minister Siddaramaiah, 69, has led Congress efforts to mobilise regional sentiment against the BJP.
His government has taken controversial decisions to propose a new state flag and emphasise the use of the local Kannada language.
He has also declared the Lingayat community - a powerful and electorally significant Hindu sect - a separate religion, infuriating Modi's Hindu supporters.
"PM Modi is deliberately confusing Karnataka voters with his bombastic speeches on non-issues. All hot air and no substance," Siddaramiah said Monday, responding to Modi's campaign blitz.
B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP's charismatic but controversial state leader, has faced allegations of corruption and questions around his age, officially 75.
Important local issues, including Karnataka's creaking infrastructure, massive pollution, farm debts and water shortages have barely got a look in during the campaign.