Political 'goddess' Sonia struggles in Guj polls | india | Hindustan Times
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Political 'goddess' Sonia struggles in Guj polls

Billed as "the goddess of sacrifice", Sonia has been short of magic this week as she struggles to strike an emotional chord with voters in her campaign a week ahead of the Gujarat polls.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2007 17:23 IST
Simon Denyer

Billed as "the goddess of sacrifice", she descended in a helicopter from a cloudless sky, towards an expectant crowd. But Sonia Gandhi, India's most powerful politician, has been short of magic this week as she struggles to strike an emotional chord with voters in her Congress party's campaign a week ahead of state elections in the key battleground of Gujarat.

The vote, in which Congress is trying to unseat a Hindu nationalist state government, is being closely watched as the countdown begins to national polls due by mid-2009 and could even influence their timing.

"This government believes in its own development and the development of a handful of people," Gandhi told a listless crowd of thousands in the town of Idar in southeastern Gujarat this week, many of them poor tribal farmers.

"We are committed to throw the cheats, liars and people who make fake promises out of Gujarat," she said, speaking in Hindi from a prepared text, to a brief burst of flat applause.

For a decade Gujarat, one of India's most prosperous states but also one of its most communally divided, has been a stronghold of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But its controversial chief minister Narendra Modi is more vulnerable than ever before as he heads into the elections, due to be held in two stages on Dec. 11 and 16, analysts say, with several dissident party members defecting to the opposition.

It would be a major prize for Congress, which heads the national coalition government, to wrest Gujarat from Modi, who has been accused of encouraging communal riots in 2002 in which up to 2,500 people were killed, most minority Muslims.

A win might encourage Congress to advance national elections.

But many analysts think Modi might just about hang on -- partly because Congress has waged an uninspired campaign.

"They started very late, organisationally they are not in good shape, and third you have not seen any focused campaigning by local Congress leaders," said Achyut Yagnik, a social scientist in.

Modi swept the 2002 state elections, held just nine months after the riots, on an overt pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim platform, winning 127 of the state assembly's 182 seats.

While he still plays the occasional anti-Muslim card, this time he is selling himself more as a champion of development in one of the fastest growing states in a booming India, boasting of everything from industrial development to rural electrification.

Congress has tried to fight him on his terms, arguing that electricity has still not reached many households, and promising free televisions to everyone below the poverty line.

Don't mention the riots

But the party which prides itself on its secular ideals has largely steered clear of attacking Modi for the 2002 riots, for fear of antagonising Hindu voters.

Its strongest card is Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who renounced her own chance to become prime minister despite winning national elections in 2004.

She may have struggled to connect with many people in Idar, but is attracting large crowds, and some, like 18-year-old student Neelam Rathore, were buying her message.

"Modi is a loud and a smart liar. Sonia is simple, honest and is willing to sacrifice her life for the people," Rathore said. "I like the way she talks, I trust her."

Gandhi briefly upped the ante on Saturday, lashing out at the "peddlers of death" running the state.

"She is slinging Italian mud at me," Modi retorted.

"That kind of mud only makes me and the lotus stronger," he said, referring to India's national flower and his party's symbol.

Then a retreat. Gandhi, on the back foot, chose her words more carefully, avoiding any direct reference to the riots. Development, she said at one rally, was not possible without social unity, which the BJP had failed to deliver.

Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says Congress is struggling to define its identity in Gujarat or spell out a clear alternative vision to Modi's.

"They have not shown the stomach for a fight," he added. "It's a sign of indecisiveness. Modi has dented the confidence of Congress."