NEW DELHI— As India holds the second to the last round of voting in general elections, all eyes are on a parliamentary seat being defended by top Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi. His performance could play a crucial role in his political future.
Wednesday’s vote involved 64 parliamentary seats across seven states. But none got as much attention as a rural constituency in Uttar Pradesh state, Amethi, which is being defended by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi political dynasty, which controls the ruling Congress Party.
Amethi, an underdeveloped area, has been a Gandhi family bastion for over three decades. But in this election, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has mounted an all-out challenge to the 43-year-old Congress Party leader.
The BJP has fielded a well known television actress, Smriti Irani, against Rahul Gandhi, who has represented Amethi for ten years. A new party, Aam Aadmi Party, has pitted a popular anti-corruption campaigner, Kumar Vishwas, against him.
And in what many observers interpreted as a sign of nervousness, Rahul Gandhi put in an appearance in Amethi as it voted Wednesday and personally went around to polling booths - something he has not done in past elections.
As people lined up to vote, some spoke of unswerving loyalty to the Gandhi family. Some others expressed dissatisfaction that their lot has not improved although they are represented by the powerful Gandhi family. They pointed to poor roads, hundreds of unemployed young people and lack of electricity.
Rahul Gandhi is widely expected to win the race. But analysts say if the victory margin is narrow, it will only strengthen charges that he has been ineffective in leading the Congress Party’s election campaign.
A professor of political science at Hyderabad University, Jyotirmaya Sharma, said a poor result will be a political setback. “His [Rahul Gandhi] credibility within the Congress has been eroded anyway during the course of the election as somebody who neither has the charisma nor the ideas to push the Congress campaign forward. He has not been able to put a positive gloss on the Congress’s ten years. That is where his failure lies,” stated Sharma.
Although Rahul Gandhi has not been named the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress Party, he is seen as the man who will inherit its leadership from his mother, Sonia Gandhi.
His rival, the opposition prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has relentlessly run down the Gandhi family’s leadership.
And the war of words between Modi and the Gandhi family has grown bitter in recent days. Modi has mocked Rahul Gandhi as a pampered prince and questioned the relevance of the Gandhis. They have accused him of indulging in low level politics.
Modi even shrugged aside a tradition in which senior leaders do not canvass in the constituencies of top rivals, and addressed a rally in Amethi on Monday, taking the battle into the turf of the Gandhis. He accused them of neglecting the area and promised to transform it in months, promoting himself as a man who can deliver development.
A political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, Satish Misra, said Rahul Gandhi is fighting widespread disillusionment with the governing Congress Party coalition known as UPA (United Progressive Alliance).
“He was carrying a very heavy baggage on his shoulder, ten years of anti incumbency of the UPA and lots of scams and scandals had taken out the sheen of the Congress Party and he was asked to lead a campaign which was burdened by all this,” said Misra.
Political analysts said that if projections that the Congress Party will lose come true, Rahul Gandhi will concentrate on rebuilding the party that has dominated India since Independence.
The votes in India's phased national elections will be counted on May 16, after the last round of polling ends on Monday.
Clashes, low voter turnout in Indian Kashmir
Few voters in Indian-controlled Kashmir have defied a separatist boycott of India's national election, with protesters clashing with police in parts of the disputed Himalayan region.
Demonstrators threw stones at security forces in the Baramulla area Wednesday, the third day of voting in Kashmir. A bomb blast at a polling station in the same district reportedly injured at least one paramilitary soldier.
Separatists have called on Kashmiris to boycott India's five week parliamentary election and voter turnout in the region is estimated to be as low as 20 percent. The vote has been marred by violence with suspected militants killing local leaders as a warning to residents not to take part in the election.
Witnesses say in the towns of Sopore and Bandipore Wednesday, protesters kept villagers from heading to polls, with crowds attacking booths, injuring at least four security personnel.
Thousands of police and paramilitary soldiers are deployed across Indian-controlled Kashmir to provide security during what is being called the world's largest democratic exercise. India has more than 800 million registered voters who will be selecting members of the lower house of parliament.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in full by both. Since 1989, various Muslim separatist groups have been fighting for Kashmir's independence from Hindu-majority India or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan.
The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought two wars over the Himalayan region since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. Thousands of people have been killed in the insurgency.