VARANASI, India, (Reuters) – India’s general election reaches a climax today as opposition challenger Narendra Modi seeks a personal mandate in Varanasi, the holy city on the river Ganges, to govern by his modernised brand of Hindu nationalism.
Modi is the first prime ministerial candidate to stand in the 3,000-year-old city where several religions mingle.
Varanasi is an ancient centre of Buddhism but one in six voters is Muslim; Hindus believe that to die here brings salvation by escaping the cycle of reincarnation.
A triumph in the city – one of 41 seats in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal which are voting on the final day of India’s five-week general election – would crown a gruelling campaign by the 63-year-old chief minister of Gujarat to lead his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) back to power after a decade in opposition.
Campaigning mainly on promises to create jobs and restore India to a path of high economic growth, Modi – whose critics accuse him of harbouring Hindu supremacist views – has largely steered clear of religion.
His oratory skills and high-tech campaign have made him a solid favourite in opinion polls to unseat the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty from New Delhi – and easily take Varanasi.
Modi “will win the election from this Varanasi constituency with a large majority”, BJP President Rajnath Singh told reporters as campaigning wrapped up at the weekend. All other candidates would “lose their deposits”.
Congress, which has lost popularity after a string of corruption scandals and a sharp economic slowdown, promises to extend welfare policies that helped it sweep into a second term five years ago. “I am confident of giving a tough fight to Narendra Modi,” its candidate Ajay Rai told Reuters.