Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on a spiritual break Saturday to a famous Himalayan pilgrimage site in an apparent last-ditch effort to woo Hindu voters as India’s acrimonious marathon election wound to a close.
On the eve of the seventh and final day of voting in the world’s biggest democratic exercise, Mr Modi, 68, meditated at a holy cave wrapped in an orange robe in the northern state of Uttarakhand.
Seated on a bed and propped up by a pillow, he was pictured inside the cave after having walked on a red carpet to the revered Kedarnath shrine dedicated to Hindu deity Lord Shiva.
He also shared pictures that he took enroute to the shrine on Twitter where he boasts 47.3 million followers.
He had to take special permission from the national poll watchdog for the trip as election rules prohibit any campaigning 48 hours before voting, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency said.
Mr Modi, who is seeking a second term after leading his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 2014, has pitched himself as a Hindu nationalist to curry favour with the country’s majority community, which makes up around 80 percent of the 1.3 billion population.
His hectic campaign which started in March has seen him address three rallies a day on average, criss-crossing the length and breadth of the geographically diverse nation which is officially secular and home to a sizeable Muslim minority.
“PM Modi addressed 142 public rallies, held four roadshows and according to conservative estimates he directly addressed about 15 million people in these rallies,” BJP president Amit Shah said Friday.
On his trip Saturday, Mr Modi also reviewed reconstruction projects after floods in Uttarakhand in 2013 killed some 6,000 people.
Some 900 million people are eligible to vote in the election, with results due on May 23.
Opinion polls predict that the BJP may lose seats this time despite its formidable campaigning machine, meaning it might need a coalition to form a new government.
Mr Modi’s main rival is Rahul Gandhi, 48, of the Congress party, the scion of India’s famed Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
The two parties have thrown almost daily barbs at each other, accusing each other of corruption, nepotism and fake nationalism.
On Saturday, Mr Gandhi met Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of southern Andhra Pradesh state who has been trying to cobble an opposition alliance against Modi.
At their meeting in New Delhi, they discussed the “impending need to bring together all parties which are against the BJP”, PTI reported, quoting sources.
As in previous elections, the polling has been marked by violence, most recently in West Bengal state where tens of thousands of security forces have been deployed following street clashes between BJP and rival supporters of the regional Trinamool Congress party.
The gargantuan election has also seen a flood of “fake news”, including photo-shopped images and edited video clips, with both main parties using legions of people to manage social media.
“Our base case remains that a coalition led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will secure a parliamentary majority after voting ends on 19 May,” Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said Friday in a report.
“The likelihood that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wins a majority by itself is falling (10 percent, from 15 percent previously).”