New Delhi: India’s election campaign has effectively kicked off, with hawkish comments on Pakistan and demands a Hindu temple be built over a former mosque charging the political atmosphere.
The Election Commission is still discussing the final election dates, although the polls must be held by May.
That has not stopped India’s most powerful politicians from joining the fray in rallies that could set the tone of the campaign between the Congress-led government and the opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The elections come as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh battles a combination of an economic slowdown, higher consumer prices and jittery security after the militant attacks in India’s financial hub in November that killed 179 people.
The head of ruling Congress party has upped the rhetoric against Pakistan in the past week as part of a campaign to show a tough stance on terrorism. India blames the Mumbai attacks on militants linked to Pakistan’s spy agency.
“Those who are aiding and abetting terrorism from across the border will get a fitting reply,” Sonia Gandhi, told a party meeting at the weekend.
Hundreds of BJP leaders met in Nagpur at the weekend, making headlines after senior leader Rajnath Singh said the party would push for the construction of a temple that has been a flashpoint of tension between Hindus and Muslims.
The BJP had sought the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site of a 16th century mosque torn down by mobs in 1992. They were forced to abandon plans during their last 1999-2004 government after opposition from secular allies.
The religious crowd
Hindu hardliners say the mosque was built by Muslim invaders after destroying a Ram temple on the site of the Hindu god’s birth. About 3,000 people were killed after Hindu mobs destroyed the mosque in some of India’s worst Hindu-Muslim riots.
Rajnath Singh’s speech was later played down by BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L K Advani, but the message highlighted what may become more common in the campaign - the playing of the Hindu religious card by the party to win voters and energise its grassroots supporters.
The Pakistan and the Hindu religious cards have so far overshadowed the slowing economy, one of voters’ major worries. Economic growth is expected to slow to 7% in 2009, and hundreds of thousands of jobs may be lost in the export sector.
“Given the problems of the economy, the platform of Congress is going to be national security,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
“For the BJP it’s going to be Ram. Their leaders don’t seem to know how to fire up voters over the economy.” The BJP has also slammed Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year-old heir to the family dynasty, who is seen by many as a potential prime minister capable of infusing Indian politics with young blood.
Election posters have started to appear on streets featuring portraits of Rahul Gandhi showcasing his youth.
Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and touted as a future BJP leader, attacked Gandhi’s family connections. It was a sign how the BJP may see Gandhi’s age as a threat to the 81-year-old Advani.
“The conspiracy to promote one family’s past threatens the future of the country,” Modi was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.