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Friday, September 24, 1999 Published at 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK

Campaigning in the heart of India

Atal Behari Vajpayee on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh

By South Asia Correspondent Mike Wooldridge in Uttar Pradesh

We had just been at a rally of the BJP, the party that headed the coalition government of the past 18 months and - if opinion polls and exit polls are to be believed - are likely to head a reshaped ruling alliance after this election.

Gyanpur is a small town in Uttar Pradesh. But the Prime Minister, no less, had put it on his itinerary.

"My government was brought down by one vote," he reminded the crowd, talking of the coalition's defeat in a vote of confidence in April.

"I beg you," he went on, "use YOUR one vote to put me back."

Indian Elections 99
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The speech dwelt on the recent conflict with Pakistan-backed forces in Kashmir - the BJP have largely built its campaign around this being a triumph of Atal Behari Vajpayee's leadership.

But there was also a local touch. This is an area where carpets are made on backyard looms, for export to markets that have become increasingly sensitive to the involvement of child labour.

Some businesses have closed down in the face of the campaigning. Mr Vajpayee said his party wanted to get children into school but he insisted that restricting India's exports wasn't the way.

Crucial state

Uttar Pradesh is one of the states where every vote could indeed count.

[ image: Supporters with a cutout of Sonia Gandhi]
Supporters with a cutout of Sonia Gandhi
It would stand alone as the sixth largest country in the world. It has 85 of the 543 elected Parliamentary seats.

Two-thirds of them are currently held by the BJP. They need that kind of result again if they're not just to scrape through but end the run of unstable governments.

Congress, their main rival, are fighting to reverse the humiliation they received in Uttar Pradesh last year.

One of the two constituencies from which Sonia Gandhi is seeking to become an MP is in Uttar Pradesh, and she has been as busily campaigning across the state as the Prime Minister.

But Uttar Pradesh, at the very centre of north India's Hindi belt, is also strongly influenced by caste politics and the lower castes have political champions who can sway the vote significantly, too.

Little wonder that there is such a contrast between the professed disillusionment with the election to be found, say, in parts of the capital and the scenes to be witnessed in those areas of Uttar Pradesh where the contests are keenest.

[ image: A special perch for a closer look]
A special perch for a closer look
In the town of Mughalserai, just to the east of the famed city of Varanasi, there appeared to be a party flag fluttering from every corner of every rooftop.

Streets are again a cacophony of competing party slogans, relayed at deafening volume from speakers attached to jeeps and even autorickshaws.

There seemed to be something charmingly anachronistic about seeing two people pedalling out of Mughalserai into the countryside with large red communist party flags stuck into the handlebars of their bicycles.

Simple needs, never met

It is in the countryside, as ever, that you find the most sobering insights into the election.

[ image: Plenty of enthusiasm for voting in the villages]
Plenty of enthusiasm for voting in the villages
There are villages where, even if one or two homes do have a television these days, there is not necessarily any power to operate it.

There are villages where there is plenty of enthusiasm for voting, but people say they often find that when they get to the polling booth someone has already cast a vote in their name.

And then there are the villages where the conflict with Pakistan isn't going to swing the vote, unless perhaps they have sent soldiers to the front.. or seen bodies come back.

What they care about mainly is jobs, land, water, roads - and that, they usually say, is what the politicians promise...and that's all.

You hear it from Karnataka to Kashmir. It was in the Kashmir Valley that I watched a group of women remonstrating with a Congress campaign team about the rutted road to their village.

Security men fingered their weapons anxiously, and after a few minutes the motorcade moved off warily again.

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