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20 April 2024

Modi tipped for power as India set for polls


India, the world's largest democracy, was expected to announce general elections Wednesday that opinion polls forecast will oust the ruling Congress party and bring firebrand Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi to power.

The vote will pit Modi, son of a tea-stall seller, against Rahul Gandhi, the Harvard and Cambridge-educated scion of India's biggest political dynasty.

India's election commission was expected to announce the schedule for the parliamentary polls at a press conference Wednesday.

"The probable dates for the commencement of polling are between April 7 and 10," an unnamed election commission official told the Press Trust of India late Tuesday.

Speculation has been rife that the polls would be announced this week with the scandal-tainted Congress-led government's second five-year mandate drawing to a close.

The voting will likely be staggered over April and May to ensure voter safety in the country of 1.2 billion people, racked by a host of insurgencies from a separatist campaign in Indian-administered Kashmir in the north to a rebel Maoist movement in eastern and central India.

Modi, a nationalist hardliner from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, is frontrunner to emerge as the next prime minister, according to opinion polls.

Bitter rivalry

From one of India's "backward castes," the 63-year-old Modi grew up in a dusty village in Gujarat state where his father's tea stall earnings bought few luxuries.

His main opponent from the left-leaning Congress party is 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi who was raised in leafy New Delhi surrounded by the trappings of power.

Gandhi's father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers, while his Italian-born mother now runs the Congress party, which faces widespread voter discontent over graft and a sharply slowing economy.

Modi, who makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the Gandhis, derides his younger opponent as "shehzada" or "prince" and has mocked his lack of experience in political office.

While popular in wealthy business circles, the BJP candidate has sought to underline his humble roots to appeal to rural voters in the northern Hindi-speaking heartland, who will decide the outcome of the world's biggest election.

Modi's biggest handicap, after a decade of running Gujarat as chief minister, is his link to religious riots in 2002 in which over 1,000 people were killed.

Controversially labelled a "merchant of death" by Rahul's mother, Sonia, in 2007, Modi has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing but his failure to contain the carnage and his Hindu nationalist background left a legacy of mistrust.

In 2012, one of his former ministers was sentenced to jail for helping orchestrate the riots, which saw families burned alive, men lynched and women and children subjected to appalling sexual violence.

Gandhi by contrast, labelled an "empty suit" in a leaked US diplomatic cable after he entered politics, is a member of parliament who has mostly shunned the limelight and refused regular offers of cabinet positions.

Often portrayed as a reluctant leader, he gave up a business career to enter politics and has slowly taken up responsibilities within Congress before becoming the face of the 2014 election campaign.

Rahul Gandhi's family has been scarred by tragedy with his grandmother Indira Gandhi being shot dead by her bodyguards and his father, Rajiv, assassinated by a suicide bomber.