By the time Rahul Gandhi arrived at his election rally in New Delhi, the bare piece of land which is otherwise used during Indian festival celebrations resembled a dust bowl.
Dust hung heavy in the air on Thursday as thousands poured in to hear the promises of the president of India’s main opposition Congress Party. Young boys draped in the standard Congress colors of orange, white and green – which resemble the Indian flag – shouted party slogans and waved huge flags.
Delhites will be casting their votes in the sixth and penultimate round of polling on May 12; with 900 million people eligible to cast ballots in India’s general elections this year, voting takes place in stages over about five weeks.
Gandhi and his Congress Party are going head to head with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who’s defending his prime ministership after a landslide win in 2014.
Modi and his BJP party have adopted the term Chowkidar, which means watchman, as a campaign identity, with its members using the word as a prefix to their names on social media profiles.
But at Gandhi’s rally tonight, cries of “Chowkidar chor hai!” (watchman is a thief) – rang out at intervals as excited men and women searched for seats. Several had personal complaints against Modi’s policies: One spectator, Kuldeep Kaur, 65, told CNN that her family’s gold business had been run into the ground due to Modi’s controversial economic initiative to demonetize 85% of the country’s currency.
“Modi has done nothing for us,” she said. “Our work has been affected so badly that our children are dying of hunger. Our business is completely shut. My children are sitting idle.”
Demonetization was one of Modi’s main economic policies instated in 2017. Practically overnight, his administration banned high-value cash denominations in an attempt to combat corruption and tax evasion. But the move came under fire for crippling small businesses and destabilizing India’s cash-based economy.
Kaur’s family ran a gold shop that was completely built on cash, she says.
“My children are not literate,” she said. “This was a business we have been running for generations. So, my children joined the business without studying. Now, we don’t have education or work,” she said wiping away tears.
“If Rahul Gandhi comes, maybe he will listen. He listens to the poor. I have this hope from him that my children will start working again.”
Speaking in the Geeta Colony in East Delhi, where the Congress is fielding candidate Arvinder Singh Lovely, Gandhi criticized Modi’s record on jobs, the economy, and allegations of corruption, and promised that his party would make it easier for Delhi’s poor to start businesses.
The Congress Party’s flagship plan to eliminate poverty is called the Nyuntam Aay Yojana or NYAY scheme. It would give Rs. 72,000 ($1,000) a year to the poorest 20% of households. The money will be transferred to the woman in the household, as far as possible, according to Congress.
“Ab Hoga Nyay” (now there will be justice) is the Congress Party’s official campaign slogan and a play on words on the NYAY scheme.
“He (Modi) has stolen from small and middle sized businesses,” Gandhi said. “NYAY will not only help the poor, it will help all businesses of India.”
After the rally, 70-year-old Naseem Bano told CNN that her family was suffering because of Modi’s policies, which she said resulted in higher costs of living and fewer jobs.
“Our children are dying of hunger,” she said. “I’m cleaning utensils for other people and surviving on one piece of bread at a time. We absolutely hate Modi.”
“He has lit fire to everything. Nothing is cheap anymore. There is no employment.”
On Wednesday, Modi held his first rally in New Delhi where he spoke on issues he’s been repeating throughout the election season, such as being tough on terrorism and national security, as well as slamming other parties for for not doing enough, and alleged corruption or nepotism.
The results of the world’s biggest election will be announced on May 23.