NEW DELHI: India’s capital heads to the ballot box on Wednesday in the last of five state elections seen as a barometer for upcoming national polls and a first test for hardline opposition leader Narendra Modi.
Modi, who was named the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate for prime minister in September, has campaigned relentlessly in all five states, seeking to gain momentum for the much bigger battle of general elections due by May.
A popular but divisive chief minister of western Gujarat state, Modi has waged a fierce fight against Rahul Gandhi and his scandal-hit Congress party, which has been in power nationally for almost 10 years.
The pair have criss-crossed the country, holding opposing mass rallies that have attracted tens of thousands of people.
In the capital, campaigning has now ended ahead of voting on Wednesday.
Results for Delhi and the four other states which voted earlier are to be published after counting on Sunday.
“This is the first time Modi has campaigned on the national stage, outside of his Gujarat, so the big question is how well will he do as we head towards general elections?” said political analyst Subhash Agrawal.
“The campaign has been a presidential-style contest, pitting one person against another, whereas previous state polls have been fought between parties over mostly local issues,” Agrawal, founder of the think-tank India Focus, told AFP.
During the often personal campaign, Modi has regularly mocked Gandhi, referring to him as “shehzada” or prince of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947.
Modi, 63, has sought to draw a contrast between Gandhi, 43, tipped to be premier should Congress win, and his humble beginnings as the son of a tea vendor in Gujarat which he has governed since 2001.
Although focus in four of the polls has been on Modi and Gandhi, the contest in Delhi has been upstaged by civil servant turned anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal.
The former tax official and his newly formed Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party are threatening a political earthquake on Wednesday when the city of 16 million elects a state assembly.
Kejriwal has campaigned against corruption, which permeates almost every aspect of life in India, and promises a clean sweep of India’s rotten politics.
“He has attracted a range of different voters, many of whom are disillusioned with traditional politics,” said Sanjay Kumar, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.
“He has made tall claims of clean, corruption-free government which appeals to the ideals of young, educated people,” he told AFP.
Support for his party fluctuates wildly according to pollsters, from an impressive six to eight seats in the 70-member Delhi assembly to an extraordinary 30 or more.
Kumar predicts less than 10 seats, a “fantastic achievement for any newcomer”, but not enough to gain traction for the national elections.
The BJP is tipped to hold power in the central states of Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring Chhattisgarh, in elections that were held last month.
The main opportunity for Modi to send a signal is in the western state of Rajasthan, where the ruling Congress administration is tipped to lose, and the ruling party’s bastion of Delhi.
Congress is seen as holding onto Mizoram in the country’s far east where voting also took place at the end of last month.
Like Kejriwal, Modi too has campaigned for clean, efficient government, highlighting Congress’s reputation which has been battered by claims of corruption and mismanagement amid faltering economic growth.
The bachelor, tarred by his association with religious riots in 2002, has promoted his record in business-friendly Gujarat, which supporters hope can be replicated at the national level.
A Hindu nationalist hardliner, he has also stressed unity, in an attempt to reassure religious minorities concerned about his record against Muslims who form some 14 percent of the Hindu-majority nation.
“Modi’s appeal stretches beyond the urban, middle-class. People everywhere want change. They are so fed up with Congress, that they are willing to give Modi a chance,” Agrawal said.
“But he still rouses suspicions, reservations among religious minorities,” he added.
Modi’s critics claim that he turned a blind eye to riots on his watch in Gujarat in 2002 when as many as 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed.
Modi has denied any wrongdoing.
During the campaign, Gandhi has referred to the bloodshed in Gujarat, accusing his election rivals of sparking “communal fire” and the BJP of spreading “divisive ideology for their narrow personal gains”.
Gandhi has also consistently championed Congress’s record on helping poor and rural communities, historically the core support of the party, including by singling out its big spending rural employment and food security subsidy schemes.