Polemic Indian opposition leader (and prime ministerial contender) Narendra Modi is lashing out — again — at rival Sonia Gandhi, calling her out over the favorable treatment given to Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen in 2012. In a Monday speech, Modi insinuated that Gandhi, who is Italian-born, was responsible for protecting the two defendants. In the process, the opposition leader re-ignited an old campaign tactic, i.e., questioning Gandhi’s origins — and more importantly, her loyalties — while stressing his own leadership skills. Modi told his audience, “You gave them [Ghandi’s ruling Congress party] 60 years, give me 60 months. I promise I will change the country.”
The firebrand leader was also sure to touch on economics — a heated topic in a country where voters are grappling with high unemployment, inflation, and corruption, and thus willing, perhaps, to overlook Modi’s controversial right-wing roots and the deadly anti-Muslim riots that broke out in 2002 under his watch as chief minister of Gujarat. Or at least that’s what recent opinion polls by the Pew Research Center indicate, with 78% of respondents claiming to hold a favorable opinion of Modi (compared to 49% for Sonia Gandhi).
VISUAL CONTEXT: Modi’s popularity in India
So why the low blow Monday? The attack comes one week before the debut of India’s general elections, where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is primed to make a strong showing, if not an across the board victory. Hence the pol’s fighting words. With regional pollsters estimating the BJP remains some 40 seats short of those needed to dominate India’s lower parliament, the pressure is on to close the gap. If it doesn’t, a ruling coalition is inevitable; trickier still for Modi is the possibility that potential partners, buoyed by a BDP shortfall in seats, could press for a different prime ministerial candidate. Here, old rivalries within the BJP party could come into play, i.e., between Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouah, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state.
Yet, Modi’s offensive stratagem is already bearing fruit, especially with India’s floundering economy bolstering his platform. With elections scheduled to last five weeks — the longest in Indian history — the BJP leader has plenty of time to deflect attacks on his questionable role in the 2002 Gujurat riots. Gandhi’s Congress party is faltering, plagued by corruption scandals and its failure to boost India’s economic growth. The Pew poll cited above reveals that seven of 10 polltakers report being dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country.
It’s still too early to call the race — remember that 2004 exit polls wrongly predicted a BJP victory — but there’s little question that the nationalist party will make notable gains and that the incumbent Congress party will see its biggest political flouncing yet. What is less certain is whether Modi will come out on top, and — given the likelihood of a ruling coalition — how much power India’s potential next premier will wield.