India's Rahul Gandhi defends seat in marathon election

Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's political dynasty and frontman for the ruling Congress party, defends his own parliamentary seat on Wednesday as the world's biggest general election enters its final stages.

More than 95 million voters are eligible to vote in the penultimate leg of the election that ends on May 12, with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expected to oust Congress from power after 10 years.

Gandhi, 43, who has failed to turn around a flailing Congress campaign, will be fighting for his political future with his northern constituency of Amethi among 64 in which voters are heading to the polls.

The challenge facing Gandhi was underscored this week when opposition frontrunner Narendra Modi held a rally in Amethi, a Gandhi stronghold for more than 30 years, and declared nothing could save the dynasty.

Modi, 63, a Hindu nationalist hardliner who has campaigned on reviving the flagging economy, taunted Gandhi on his home turf, urging voters to "break ties with the family" that has produced three prime ministers.

"The fight is now for the relevance of the Gandhi family as unquestioned leaders of the Congress," Modi told the Times of India in an interview published Tuesday.

Opinion polls show voters have turned against Congress over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown.

With Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, the BJP is expected to win the most seats in the 543-member parliament, but will likely fall short of an outright majority. Results are announced on May 16.

Analysts say Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner, was stepping up his bitter attack on the Gandhi family by appearing in Amethi, as he senses victory in the five-week-long election.

"Modi wanted to hit the last nail in the coffin. His visit (to Amethi) was aimed directly at Rahul, a direct blow," Delhi-based veteran political analyst and commentator Amulya Ganguli told AFP.

"But even then, there is only a faint possibility of Rahul losing (his seat)," he added.

Congress has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947 and is synonymous with the Nehru-Gandhi clan which includes party president Sonia Gandhi, Rahul's mother.

But Ganguli said the Gandhis themselves could face internal party revolt if Congress failed to win at least 100 seats.

"Their (Gandhi) utility is to make the party win and if they can't even do that, then that will spell big trouble for the dynasty," Ganguli said.

- Deeply polarising -

Sonia, Rahul and his sister Priyanka have stepped up attacks on Modi, calling him a religious fanatic who would spread divisions between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities if he won power.

At a rally on Tuesday, Rahul Gandhi accused the BJP and its right-wing affiliates of engineering riots before past elections to polarise votes along religious lines.

"They will only make people fight with each other, but won't talk of issues... employment, power, irrigation," he said.

"If the UPA (Congress coalition) returns to power for a third time, we will ensure everyone in the country gets healthcare and medicine."

Although immensely popular, Modi is seen by some as a deeply polarising figure due to his Hindu nationalist rhetoric and allegations that he failed to swiftly curb deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots.

The riots swept Gujarat during his early years as chief minister of the prosperous western state, leaving at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, dead. The BJP leader has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

Voting is taking place Wednesday in the critical states of Uttar Pradesh, where Amethi is located, Bihar and West Bengal, along with the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, among others.