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GTA residents line up to lobby for candidates in Indian election

India’s ruling Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi attends the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meet to prepare for the upcoming polls in New Delhi, India, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. Members of the Congress party erupted in rapturous applause Friday for Rahul Gandhi, heir to the country's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, who is leading the struggling party's campaign in the general election in May.

Altaf Qadri/AP

For hundreds of GTA residents, there's an election looming of huge significance. And it's not a mayoral or provincial race.

Now that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has publicly announced that he won't seek re-election for a third term, political activities among Indo-Canadians hoping to sway the vote back home have started heating up. The federal election is scheduled for May.

There are two main Indian political groups active in Canada: Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP) and the Overseas Congress. OFBJP supports the BJP's Gujarat Chief Minister (Premier) Narendra Modi; Overseas Congress is supporting leadership of 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, whose father Rajiv Gandhi and grandmother Indira Gandhi were both prime ministers who were assassinated on the job. The current head of the dynasty, Rahul's mother Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, recently announced her son's name would not be put forth for prime minister, although many believe this is just to reduce the controversy around his probable ascendancy for the time being.

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About 1,000 Indo-Canadian volunteers are expected go to India to lobby support for the BJP parliamentary candidates during the May election, according to Dr. Azad Kumar Kaushik, Associate Professor of Immunology at Guelph University and Convener of the Toronto Chapter of OFBJP.

"We see the support for Mr. Modi is swelling each day. It's not an election. It is a people's movement to save India from decade long miss-governance of the country [by Congress]," he said.

Meanwhile, Leader of the Overseas Congress, Manjit Singh Bhondhi said he expects to lead a group of at least 500 volunteers to India to support Mr. Gandhi's party.

Congress supporters say Mr. Gandhi's leadership has created a great deal of excitement among young voters. Close to 120 million young people will have the right to vote for the first time and they "hold key to 2014 Lok Sabha [House of Commons] polls," predicts the Times of India. In the last election in 2009, the Congress Party took 119-million votes and the BJP 78-million.

However, the most recent polls in India show Mr. Modi in the lead, with the support of a third of Indian voters, according to a report by Reuters Friday. The survey, conducted by pollsters CSDS for the CNN-IBN television channel, also forecast that Modi's BJP would win 192-210 seats in the 543-seat assembly, while the ruling Congress party would only bag 92-108 seats. Neither the BJP nor any other party is expected to win the 272 seats needed for an outright majority, which means the party with the most votes will seek to form a coalition with regional parties.

In Canada, support for Mr. Modi also appears to be gaining momentum, says Peter Sutherland, former Canadian High Commissioner to India and currently President of the Toronto-based Canada-India Business Council (C-IBC), "My anecdotal evidence shows there's more support for Mr. Modi amongst Canadian business people, more so amongst the Indo-Canadians," Mr. Sutherland says.

Toronto-based businessman Mr. Ajit Someshwar, co-founder of the Canada-India Foundation, is lobbying for support for Mr. Modi: "He's a charismatic leader. He has a developmental agenda and, I am confident he will bring about enormous changes in the country."

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He cites Mr. Modi's various achievements during his three terms as chief minister of Gujarat, including the fact that the GDP in Gujarat has now climbed to 12 per cent, compared with the national average GDP of five per cent.

The campaign has been heated after starting out on a negative note. When he announced that he will pass on the "baton" to the new leader after the May election, Prime Minister Singh lashed out at Mr. Modi, accusing him of presiding over a massacre of innocent citizens during 2003 sectarian violence in Gujarat. According to widely published reports and eye witnesses, most of the victims were Muslims.

Mr. Someshwar accuses Congress of continually bringing up those tragic events as a political ploy, disregarding the fact that "the courts have cleared Mr. Modi of all charges." "The majority of 72.7-million people in Gujarat supported Mr. Modi for the third term as chief minister of Gujarat, including over 30 per cent of Muslims," he notes.

Interestingly, there's no evidence of any fund raising activities in Canada in support of one political party or the other. Both pro-BJP and pro-Congress supporters are opposed to their raising funds for overseas political activities. "I am a Canadian and I don't want to financially influence election results of any other country," Mr. Someshwar says.

Dr. N.K. Wagle, an expert on India and Professor Emeritus of History, University of Toronto, says his concerns about the election are not so much how Mr. Modi will do against Mr. Gandhi, but rather about the political instability that could result if no party emerges with a majority or near majority.

"I am sure there will be more Modi enthusiasts in Toronto … than the backers for Rahul [Gandhi], who's a political non-entity, as far as I am concerned," says Dr. Wagle. "[I am] least obsessed by the Rahul vs. Modi issue in 2014. It would be BJP-Modi vs. the rest of the regional parties… I predict that, whoever comes to power, the post-election two-year period will be troubling for India."

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With a file from Reuters

Ajit Jain is a freelance writer.

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