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    May 12, 2014

    Modi makes final pitch


    THE front runner for prime minister Narendra Modi is calling for a record turnout to throw the scandal-plagued Congress party out of office after voting ends today in India's marathon election.

    His final appeal to voters came hours before a landmine blast killed seven police officers yesterday in the country's insurgency-racked centre, amid stepped-up security before votes are counted and results announced on Friday.

    The world's biggest election, held in phases over five weeks, is expected to propel Mr Modi, a Hindu nationalist hardliner from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to power.

    "People are tired of false promises, corruption and the same old tape-recorded messages ridden with dynastic references only to hide one's own failure," he said in a blog late on Saturday.

    "They want a better tomorrow and NDA is the only alliance that can provide this change," he said, referring to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition. "I urge all those voting in the final phase to vote in record numbers, especially the youth."

    Campaigning ended on Saturday in the election that is likely to see Congress - whose campaign is headed by Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's most famous political dynasty - ousted from power after 10 years.

    Politicians were barred from making speeches or taking to the hustings yesterday, one day before 66 million people are eligible to cast their ballots in 41 seats in the final stage of the staggered voting.

    Opinion polls show voters have turned against Congress over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown during its two terms heading a left-leaning coalition government since 2004.

    The BJP is expected to win the most seats in the 543-member Parliament when results are announced on Friday.

    But it will likely fall short of an outright majority, meaning it will need to forge a coalition with regional parties.

    Mr Modi, 63, the son of a tea-stall owner, who has pledged development, investment and jobs to revive the struggling economy, sought to strike a note of unity in his last message to voters.

    "We can decide whether we want to fight each other or we want to unite to fight poverty. The former will lead us nowhere while the latter will take our nation to greater heights," he said in his blog.

    The campaign has sparked claims by Mr Gandhi and other Congress leaders that Mr Modi will widen divisions between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities if elected.

    Although popular, Mr Modi is a deeply polarising figure due to his Hindu nationalist past and allegations that he failed to swiftly curb the deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots.

    The riots that swept Gujarat during his early years as chief minister of the prosperous western state left at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, dead.

    Mr Gandhi, 43, ratcheted up the rhetoric on Saturday, saying Mr Modi "only wants to divide people, make people fight each other". He was speaking during final campaigning in Varanasi, which votes today.

    Mr Gandhi sought to muster a final show of strength in the Hindu holy city, which has become a focus of national attention between two star candidates.

    Mr Modi is battling in Varanasi against anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, who vaulted to national prominence as leader of the upstart Aam Aadmi - Common Man - Party. His campaign has resonated with voters angry at endemic corruption in government and in everyday life.

    Congress, which has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947, is given little chance in Varanasi. Mr Gandhi, whose lacklustre leadership of the Congress campaign has drawn criticism, admitted the BJP has been better at "marketing itself".

    But he told the Hindustan Times that Congress was better able to deliver on programmes, particularly to tens of millions of Indians living in poverty.

    "I am confident that voters will give a mandate to an inclusive, fair and unifying government that the Congress party offers," he told the newspaper in an interview published yesterday.