India's election official has hit back at accusations from the campaign’s presumed front-runner that his organisation was discriminating against him.
As India prepares for its ninth and final day of voting on Monday, Narendra Modi told a rally that the Election Commission Of India (EC) had not acted fairly by refusing him permission to hold a rally in Varanasi.
“With full responsibility, I’m accusing India’s election commission of discrimination,” said Mr Modi, according to the Reuters news agency.
Earlier, a senior colleague in Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had written online that the EC was “timid” and biased by refusing permission to the party’s prime ministerial candidate while allowing rival parties to hold various rallies in the historic city located on the Ganges river.
In pictures: India elections 2014
In pictures: India elections 2014
A polling official (R) marks the finger of an elderly man with indelible ink before he casts his vote at a polling station in Kunwarpur village
Indian man rides on a motorcycle in a street of downtown Varanasi ahead of the frontrunner's convoy
A supporter of Indian election frontrunner Narendra Modi cheers as he listens to his speech during a rally in Rohaniya
Indian residents of Varanasi wait to watch a convoy carrying India election frontrunner Narendra Modi in a streets of downtown Varanasi
Indian Congress Party supporters wait alongside posters bearing the image of party Vice President Rahul Gandhi and President Sonia Gandhi at an election rally in Kolkata
National Congress party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi (L) delivers lecture as he attends an election campaign event before ninth phase of the parliamentary elections, North of Calcutta
A supporter of India's main opposition and Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party holds up a cutout of the party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi during an election campaign rally in Varanasi
Indian election workers check voting machines before leaving a central collection point for polling stations in Leh, Ladakh
Polling officials leave for their assigned polling stations after collecting the electronic voting machines and other material from a distribution centre ahead of the ninth phase of general election in Faizabad district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh
Village women and children attend an election rally addressed by Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh
Elderly Indian voter Mohinder Kaur shows her inked finger after casting her vote at a polling station during the seventh phase of parliamentary elections at village Sultanwind near Amritsar
In a rare press conference on Thursday afternoon, the EC’s most senior official, VS Sampath, urged politicians to act with greater maturity and dismissed claims that his officials were biased. He said the accusations being made could lead to “long-term damage to the independence and neutrality” of the body.
“We are not afraid of any political party or entity in discharging our duty,” he said. “The EC has come across certain harsh statements. We reassure everyone that the EC is doing its job in strict non-partisan manner.”
The increasingly heated and bitter language came as Mr Modi’s supporters planned a series of events for him in Varanasi, one of two constituencies he is contesting. After some dispute, the authorities agreed to two of the events but denied a third – a rally planned for a reasonably small park close to a Muslim neighbourhood.
The authorities said the “expert” advice they had received suggested there could be a security risk if the rally went ahead. The BJP insisted the EC was following double standards and pointed out that other parties were holding campaign events.
In the end, Mr Modi simply announced that he would be driving to his party’s head office on Thursday evening – something for which he did not need a permit – and ensured huge numbers of his supporters turned out to see him.
The ancient city of Varanasi, which some local people dates back 5,000 years, has become the focus for the final, frenzied round of campaigning. Today, a rally is being held by Arvind Kejriwal of the grassroots Common Man party, while tomorrow Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party is due to visit and campaign for its candidate, Ajay Rai.
Indian elections are notoriously difficult to predict but there is widespread agreement that Mr Modi has seized the momentum in the campaign, both nationally and in Varanasi. The results of all the polls are due to be announced on 16 May.