Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS
Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS

Gandhinagar/New Delhi — India’s main opposition Congress party switched its campaign focus back to economic and social issues such as jobs on Tuesday as pollsters said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election bid has been boosted by hostilities with neighbouring Pakistan.

“How will the youth get jobs? How will women feel safer, and move forward? What will be done for farmers?,” Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said in her first speech since joining the party as a general secretary earlier in 2019 . “These are the election issues.”

Her brother, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, called unemployment the most important issue in the general election, which starts on April 11. Thousands of party supporters clapped and cheered as the siblings spoke at a rally in Gandhinagar, the capital of Modi’s home state, Gujarat.

Pollsters have said Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has an early advantage after India’s armed forces clashed with those of arch-rival Pakistan in February.

Before then, the prime minister had been under pressure over unemployment and rising problems for farmers. India’s unemployment rate shot up to 7.2% in February, the highest since September 2016, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The BJP lost power in three states in late 2018.

The jobs numbers took a back seat after a February 14 suicide car bomb that killed 40 Indian security personnel in the disputed region of Kashmir and that was claimed by a Pakistan-based Islamist militant group. In response, India said its warplanes bombed a militant camp inside Pakistan, which responded the next day with an aerial attack of its own.

Amid doubts about the success of the Indian strike, opposition parties including Congress said earlier  in March they would launch a united attack on Modi for what they called his politicisation of the armed forces since the confrontation with Pakistan.

Pollsters had said questioning Modi on national security rather than focusing on everyday issues could backfire on the prime minister’s opponents. BJP leaders have said the government’s economic record and the tough stance on Pakistan will help it retain power.

Zakir Hussain, who travelled about 85km to attend the Gandhinagar rally, said he voted for the BJP in the last general election in 2014 but was now impressed by Congress.

“Congress has fulfilled the promises it made before the elections,” Hussain said, referring to the waiving of farm loans in three states where the party won back power from the BJP. “So I will vote for Congress and they will form the government this time.”

Results from the election in the world’s second most populous country are due on May 23.