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September 21, 2017

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Indian election campaign enters its final day

NEW DELHI -- Campaigning in India's bitterly fought election entered its last day Saturday ahead of next week's final voting with the Hindu nationalist opposition already scenting victory.

Rahul Gandhi, heading the campaign of the ruling Congress party which is seen heading for a crushing defeat, sought to muster a final show of strength in the holy Hindu city Varanasi.

Varanasi is one of the last constituencies set to vote in Monday's final leg of voting in the multi-phase election.

The city, on the sacred river Ganges, is being contested by Narendra Modi, tipped to lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power after a decade in opposition.

Gandhi, standing in an open garland-festooned truck, shook well-wishers' hands under a scorching summer sun.

The broader national battle is between Congress and the BJP in the election, whose results are due next Friday.

But the media has depicted the Varanasi contest as a "David-and-Goliath" clash between anti-graft campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the upstart Aam Aadmi — Common Man — Party and Modi.

Kejriwal drew huge crowds when he told Varanasi voters Friday he was confident of "a huge majority" in the temple-studded city.

But the BJP predicted "a clear majority" nationally.

Top organizer Amit Shah said the electorate had supported the BJP "irrespective of caste (and) religion" as he sought to dispel notions Modi's muscular Hindu nationalism was a stumbling block for voters.

Gandhi Family in Last-Ditch Push

Modi, 63, who has made myriad campaign stops — even appearing as a hologram to supporters, was also making a final whirlwind appeal to voters.

In the last days of the campaign, he has sought to cast off his polarizing image and the BJP's religion-based reputation, pushing an agenda of good governance and growth.

"I believe in one India, the best India," said Modi, chief minister of thriving Gujarat state, who is popular among business and middle-class voters frustrated by a sharp economic slowdown, high inflation and corruption scandals.

Still, 12 years ago, few would have guessed Modi would be in line to be premier after riots swept Gujarat during his early time as chief minister, killing at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.

The BJP leader was never charged with wrongdoing but many critics charge that he did too little to stop the violence.

The Gandhi family has been making a last-ditch campaign push.

South Asia's most famous political dynasty has given India three premiers since independence in 1947.

But bookies reckon the likelihood of Rahul becoming premier is so minuscule they've stopped taking bets, according to local media.

Shah forecast the BJP and allies would get 300 seats in the 543-seat parliament. Opinion polls also suggest the BJP is on track to win the most seats.

Investors, confident of a BJP win, have driven India's benchmark share index to record highs.

But some market players, wary of India's notoriously unreliable opinion polls, voiced concerns of a massive selloff if the BJP fares worse than expected and political instability ensues.

Rahul, groomed for Congress leadership by his mother, party president Sonia Gandhi, has been dubbed the "reluctant crown prince," preferring a backroom role to government posts. Local media has judged his campaign performance uninspiring.

Priyanka, 42, regarded as more politically gifted, has made blistering attacks on the BJP and called the election a battle to preserve India's secular foundations.

While India's 1.25 billion population is mainly Hindu, 13 percent are Muslim.

Still, if Congress loses, few observers are writing its obituary, having seen the party rebound before from crashing defeats.

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