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India's Rahul Gandhi battles for seat as election end nears

Beleaguered Rahul Gandhi, battling to save India's ruling Congress party in national elections, sought to win over sceptical voters in his constituency on Wednesday as voting in the world's biggest democracy entered its final stages.

AMETHI: Beleaguered Rahul Gandhi, battling to save India's ruling Congress party in national elections, sought to win over sceptical voters in his constituency on Wednesday as voting in the world's biggest democracy entered its final stages.

Gandhi, the scion of India's most famous political dynasty whose lacklustre leadership of the Congress election campaign has drawn criticism, travelled to his northern parliamentary seat to witness voting first-hand.

He toured polling booths in Amethi -- his family's bastion for more than 30 years, which sent both his mother and late father to parliament -- and told reporters that local people were "expressing their love for me".

More than 95 million voters are eligible to vote in the penultimate leg of the election, which ends with results on May 16. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to oust Congress from power after 10 years.

"Change is in the air for all to see. I too voted for change," voter Shyam Charan Gupta told AFP from Amethi, a poor rural area in the crucial battleground state of Uttar Pradesh.

The challenge facing Gandhi was underscored this week when opposition frontrunner Narendra Modi held a rally in Amethi and declared that nothing could save the dynasty.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist hardliner who has campaigned on reviving the flagging economy, urged voters to "break ties with the family" that has produced three prime ministers.

Gandhi's presence in Amethi on Wednesday was interpreted in the local media as a sign of concern due to competition from the BJP candidate, former actress Smriti Irani, and a popular anti-corruption campaigner and poet, Kumar Vishwas.

In March, Gandhi's campaign manager told AFP that the 43-year-old, who spends on average only one night a month in his constituency, had no plans for special campaigning in Amethi.

Most voters told AFP they still expected Gandhi to win, but said they would vote for him out of loyalty to the family rather than conviction in his abilities.

Turnout in the district was 43 percent by mid-afternoon, PTI news agency reported.

The constituency, mostly wheat-growing farmland dotted with hamlets, abounds with complaints about the poor roads and intermittent electricity, but Gandhi blames these problems on the local state government.

A poor result -- after victories with 66 percent and 72 percent in 2004 and 2009 -- would deal a blow he would find it difficult to recover from.

"The fight is now for the relevance of the Gandhi family as unquestioned leaders of the Congress," Modi told the Times of India in an interview published Tuesday.

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

With Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, the BJP is expected to win the most seats in the 543-member parliament, but will likely fall short of an outright majority.

Analysts say 63-year-old Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner, appeared in Amethi because he sensed waning support for Gandhi.

"Modi wanted to hit the last nail in the coffin. His visit (to Amethi) was aimed directly at Rahul, a direct blow," Delhi-based veteran political analyst and commentator Amulya Ganguli told AFP.

Congress has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947 and is led by the Nehru-Gandhi clan, which includes party president Sonia Gandhi, Rahul's mother.

Sonia, Rahul and his sister Priyanka have intensified their criticism of Modi, calling him a religious fanatic who would spread divisions between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities.

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

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

The BJP leader was investigated but never charged with any wrongdoing. However, many people still believe he did too little to stop the violence.

Voting also took place Wednesday in Kashmir, where police clashed with protesters, and Ladakh in the Himalayas.

Retired 97-year-old teacher Shyam Saran Negi was among those who went to the polls in northern Himachal Pradesh state -- keeping up a tradition he has maintained since independence in 1947.

"I appeal to all to vote to elect honest leaders," Negi told AFP on the phone from Kalpa village.

The final round of voting, in 41 constituencies, will take place on Monday.

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