The leaders of India’s two main parties heaped fresh attacks on one another in an increasingly bitter campaign prior to the first of nine days of voting.
Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family and face of the ruling Congress party’s campaign, accused the main opposition party of “double standards” over corruption and of trying to divide India along communal lines.
Meanwhile, Narendra Modi, the candidate of the main opposition party, accused Sonia Gandhi, Mr Gandhi’s mother and head of the Congress party, of indulging in vote-bank politics and of misleading India’s Muslims.
The barbs came on the eve of nine days of voting spread out over the coming month. In the first of these, voters today go to the polls in parts of Assam and Tripura, in India’s north-east. A total of 814m people across India are registered to participate. The results from all the polls are due to be announced on 16 May.
The rules governing India’s elections put in place a so-called “Model Code” to which all parties and politicians are supposed to adhere. It says that while a candidate can criticise the policies of another candidate, they are not get involved in personal attacks.
India’s election season got underway with much high-minded talk of sticking to such rules. But, in an echo of elections in many other parts of the world, as polling dates have become nearer, the campaign rhetoric has become increasingly jagged and personal.
A Congress party candidate was arrested after saying he wanted to chop Mr Modi into pieces, while a BJP leader said he wanted to strip Mrs Gandhi and her son and “send them back to Italy.”
Meanwhile, over the weekend, police filed charges against a senior aide of Mr Modi after he was accused of telling voters in an area that had seen clashes between groups from different religions, that the election was about getting “revenge”.
Many polls suggest Mr Modi, who remains scarred by the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was chief minister, has a wave of support that could see him dislodge the Congress, which has held the last two terms of government.
Mr Modi’s polished and professional campaign has projected him as the only person capable of kickstarting India’s development and of tackling corruption.
But at a rally in the state of Haryana, Mr Gandhi accused the BJP of double standards when it came to corruption.
“[The BJP leaders] go to the state of Karnataka and give big speeches there. They bring BS Yeddyurappa, who was the Karnataka Chief Minister and has been in jail, on to the stage and then say they are against corruption,” he said. “Then they go to Chhatisgarh where mining mafia rules and say we are against corruption.”
In a speech in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Modi accused Mrs Gandhi and one of her coalition partners of playing vote bank politics.
“They talk of secularism but their politics is all about keeping all classes poor through their politics,” he said, according the Press Trust of India news agency. “They can neither provide development nor security to the people and they have no right to be in power even for a second.”
Kanchan Gupta, a senior journalist and an adviser to Mr Modi, said he expected the language of the campaign trail would become “saucier” as the month of voting got underway.
“At this point, nobody really has a new point to make and you cannot keep on repeating the old points,” he said. “Now is about addressing the voting classes and the voting classes get very bored with the serious stuff.”
The north-eastern state of Tripura has two constituencies, both of them strongholds of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M). West Tripura, which includes the capital, Argatala, votes today while East Tripura, a constituency reserved for candidates from tribal communities, votes on Saturday.
At a national level, the campaign has been dominated by the issue of development and tackling corruption. In Tripura, the creation of jobs, especially for young people and those not associated the CPI(M), is an important local issue.
“For the younger generation, the jobs situation is very bad,” said Subhankar Karmakar, a 21-year-old student who was walking in a park in Agartala yesterday evening. “There are jobs, but they are not available to everyone.”