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Attacks get personal in a heated race

Publication Date : 11-05-2014


Campaigning in India has ended in an election that has seen politicians breaking convention by trading insults and getting personal.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi continued in that vein yesterday when he rode into Varanasi, a political battleground where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s  Narendra Modi is contesting, in a last push for the Congress and its candidate Ajay Rai, a local politician.

"Modi ji please change your poster - say that you will respect women and stop sending the police or tapping phones of women in Gujarat.... give a little respect," said Gandhi, mocking him. The comment was a reference to the alleged spying on a woman by officials in Gujarat, where Modi is the Chief Minister.

Gandhi was driven through the city streets, waving to people on the final day of campaigning in what many termed as payback for Modi campaigning in his constituency of Amethi. Leaders usually do not campaign in each other's parliamentary constituencies during elections.

India's nine-stage general election began on April 7. Tomorrow is the last day of voting in 41 constituencies in the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar with results expected to be announced on Friday.

While the BJP appears headed for a strong win, many see the Congress turning in one of its worst electoral performances on the back of voter anger over high food prices, corruption and weak leadership.

And the vitriol has risen to levels never before seen in elections, with barbs flying between Modi and the Gandhis - Priyanka and her older brother and Congress vice-president Rahul, who is spearheading the election campaign.

Modi, 63, who married at 17, disclosed his marital status last month. He said he has been separated from his schoolteacher wife ever since they parted after three years of marriage. Rahul Gandhi responded to the revelation by chiding Modi for not respecting women.

Earlier, in March, Modi took a dig at Gandhi, calling him "shahzada", which means prince, in a reference to dynastic politics.

But the fiercest exchange was between Modi and Gandhi.

At a rally in Uttar Pradesh in January, Modi said that it would take "a 56-inch chest" to turn the poor state into a powerhouse like Gujarat.

"Really?" Gandhi countered.

"A 56-inch chest is not needed to run this country. A big heart is needed... moral strength is needed," she said.

While Modi called the Gandhi family, including late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, "arrogant" , Priyanka Gandhi hit back by saying he was hungry for power and accused him of anointing himself prime minister ahead of election results.

Both sides blamed the other for raising the personal attacks to an undesirable level.

BJP senior leader Arun Jaitley blamed the Congress for starting it.

"We were forced to react," he said.

But Gandhi, whose businessman-husband Robert Vadra has also been a target, said the personal attacks by the opposition were intended to mislead voters.

"This is not politics," she said.

The personal attacks are unusual, say political analysts.

"One reason is that for the first time, the Indian election is like the US presidential election, with the fight involving two key personalities, Modi and Gandhi," said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar.

"Another is that this election is very intense, so it got personal. Also, Modi has all along been a state-level politician. He has no personal rapport with the Gandhi family unlike other BJP leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee (a former prime minister)."

The bad blood between Modi and the Gandhis has been brewing for years.

During state assembly elections in Gujarat in 2007, Congress president Sonia Gandhi infamously called Modi "maut ka saudgar", or merchant of death, in reference to the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in the state.

Modi, as chief minister, is accused of doing little to stem the riots, which left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.

However, Mrs Gandhi's comments backfired and instead helped Modi storm to victory on a huge wave of voter support.

So while voters show they do not take kindly to personal attacks on candidates, political watchers say this election is proving to be an exception.

"Voters don't like it when it gets personal. But when both sides are levelling charges at each other, it becomes a level playing field," said Dr N. Bhaskara Rao, of the Centre for Media Studies in Delhi.

"This is a no-holds-barred campaign.


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