BENGALURU, India (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has thrown himself into a campaign to win a tight state election this weekend and secure a beachhead in the south, ahead of his own re-election bid next year.
Karnataka state, home to India’s Silicon Valley capital of Bengaluru, is the first big state electing an assembly this year to be followed by three others in the final test of popularity before a general election due next May.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which has its core base of support in the north and west, has pinned its hopes on Karnataka because it has little presence in any of the southern states dominated by regional parties.
It has held power before in Karnataka and Modi is addressing rallies to win back the state from the main opposition Congress party and build momentum for the general election.
“Now that the countdown has begun for 2019, a victory or defeat in Karnataka is bound to influence the battle of perceptions,” said political columnist Neerja Chowdhury.
“The BJP has viewed Karnataka as a ‘gateway to the south’ and the Karnataka prize could help the party acquire a pan-India profile,” she said.
Defeat, on the other hand, would re-energise Congress under Rahul Gandhi, the fifth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which is trying to exploit dissatisfaction over a lack of jobs for young people and rising fuel prices.
On Tuesday, Modi, by far the main vote-getter for the BJP, was back on the stump, addressing rallies across the state and vowing to make a militarily and economically strong India.
Modi’s supporters, many clad in scarves and caps in the saffron colour of his party, chanted his name as they filled a street in Koppal district.
The election is on Saturday and the votes will be counted on May 15 with the result declared that day.
Opinion polls have forecast no clear winner between the Congress and the BJP and suggested that a regional group, the Janata Dal (S), may emerge as kingmaker in the 225-member state assembly.
A spokesman for the regional group said it urging voters to reject the two main parties and let it rule the state on its own.
“We are going to the people telling them that they have seen both BJP and Congress in power for full terms. We are asking them to now give us a chance,” he said.
Political parties have campaigned on helping farmers and improving conditions in Bengaluru.
(This version of the story corrects Para 11 to show Karnataka has 225 assembly seats).
Additional reporting by Derek D.Francis; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani