The temperature is rising in Ahmedabad; the monsoons are still more than a month away - if they come at all - the air feels heavy with grit and dust; just a few steps from the relative shelter of the railway station and my shirt is clinging to me. Any thoughts of going further on foot are abandoned, an air conditioned taxi awaits.
This is the major city of the State of Gujarat, the heartland of Narendra Modi, the man expected to lead his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory and become the next Prime Minister of India, and it is election day for this part of the vast nation – the world's largest democracy by several hundred million voters.
Modi himself is casting his vote in Gandhinagar, the state's new capital city 30 kilometres to the north, even though he is actually standing in another city, Vadodara. To make things even more incomprehensible to Australians accustomed to fairly straightforward elections, Modi is also the candidate in Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is not scheduled to vote until May 12.
But if Modi is not here in person, he is here in spirit. Today the streets of this sprawling over-crowded industrial city (it has grown in less than a century from a quarter of a million to more than six million) are packed with surrogate Modis wearing his image on cardboard masks. These seem to be the successors of the coloured rosette to indicate party affiliation, and street sellers are doing a roaring trade in them all over the country.
As this month-long election process enters its final week only dedicated supporters of the ruling Congress Party led by Rahul Gandhi are still bravely maintaining that it can hang on to its decade in power. Even Gandhi himself seemed to be conceding when he said he would rather sit out the next five years in opposition than join a 'Third Front' of regional groupings and parties on the far left, including the Communist Party of India.
Gandhi later 'clarified' his statement, saying he still believed Congress and its major allies would win government in their own right, but few observers believe him. Indeed some are suggesting the BJP could win up to 300 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (Parliament) which would give it an absolute majority – something that has not happened for any party since the 1980s.
As the campaigning – and the election – reaches its climax Congress has switched its attack to Modi's administration in Gujarat where he has been Chief Minister for more than a decade. The BJP has built its campaign around the state's economic success story – it has a 12 per cent growth rate and is now responsible for a quarter of all India's exports – claiming that a Modi-led Government can transform the nation as a whole.
However, joint attacks by Congress and the newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have claimed that the Gujarat model of development is a myth. In a recent speech Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi (the mother of Rahul) said there were still villages in the state that did not have potable water and Gujarat had the highest malnutrition rate in the country among children up to the age of five.
Congress and the AAP have both claimed Modi is in the pocket of major industrialists who have bankrolled his campaign in return for receiving vast stretches of land to develop factories at prices well below market rates.
The anti-Modi campaign also highlights the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, long seen as the candidate's Achilles heel, with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Benerjee labelling Modi "a bloodthirsty rioter".
The savage violence, in which more than 1000 people, mostly Muslims, died occurred in the first weeks of Modi's administration as Chief Minister and claims he was complicit in them, or at least did nothing to stop them, have persisted even though a High Court investigation cleared him of the charges.
In a recent biography, Modi said he had done all that he could to halt the killing, even to the point of asking New Delhi to send in troops, a request that was apparently refused.
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