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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
High noon for India's politicians

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Andhra Pradesh

Rally in Alar, Andhra Pradesh
Chandrababu Naidu's rally sparks the campaign into life

Rally organiser LR Reddy is a worried man.

We are at Alar, a village in India's southern Andhra Pradesh state.

It is just after noon and with the sun beating down, fewer than 2,000 people have shown up for an election rally to be addressed by state chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu.

At the start of the country's marathon four-phase election, the mood of the electorate appears decidedly subdued.

The colour and chaos that is so much a part of electioneering in the world's largest democracy is muted.

"It hardly feels like an election is on," says voter Suhail.

But despite the poor turnout, both India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party and the main opposition Congress are hard at work.

Star campaigner

Andhra Pradesh votes on 20 and 26 April and with 42 parliamentary constituencies it is a critical state.

Rally confrontation in Hyderabad
BJP and Congress rallies confront each other in Hyderabad

So every possible means is used to generate enthusiasm.

Back in the state capital, Hyderabad, Congress has enlisted the services of leading film actress, Nagma.

And it appears to have worked. Thousands crowd the narrow lanes of a city neighbourhood, craning their necks for a better look as Nagma, dark glasses firmly in place, waves.

The Congress party candidate next to her beams, although few appear to have noticed him.

"She is so pretty," giggles teenager Bashir, as his friend slaps him on the back in mirth.

Across town, the BJP candidate - federal minister Bandaru Dattatreya - is perched on top of an open car at the head of a similar rally. As his colourful procession turns a corner, it runs into a Congress campaign.

Nagma and tribal woman
Different worlds: Actress Nagma (L centre) and a tribal woman in Alar

Arguments break out as each party holds its ground but finally the BJP relents and Congress is allowed to move ahead.

Mr Dattatreya's campaign team says it is confident of victory because of his record in office.

In reality, the confidence stems from an alliance with a powerful local party, the Telugu Desam.

In an election where regional parties play a critical role, Telugu Desam is one of the most influential.

Its chief, Chandrababu Naidu, is also one of India's new generation leaders.

A taciturn politician and a surprisingly poor public speaker, Mr Naidu has nevertheless managed to build an image of a 21st century reformer.

Giant screens

Hyderabad is often dubbed Cyberabad because of its position as a major centre for India's software industry.

One of Mr Naidu's latest projects is to bring Formula 1 motor racing to his state "to bring in more tourists".

Mr Naidu's fondness for new technology is evident at the Telugu Desam campaign in the countryside.

The Telugu Desam Party gets its campaign moving in Alar

At Alar, giant screens play images from his campaign speeches, interspersed with images of his party symbol, a cycle.

In a country where nearly one-third of the population is illiterate, easily recognised party symbols are used by voters to identify the party of their choice.

The crowd picks up as several trucks carrying villagers arrive, horns blaring, to unload their cheering cargo.

Among them is a large group of Lambadas, a once nomadic tribe who have now more or less settled down in northern and central Andhra Pradesh.

They stand out with their large, dangling earrings and an arm's length of white bangles.

"It's our day out," says Devalli as she helps herself to an ice-cream, paid for by the ever-obliging Telugu Desam party worker.

She joins several hundred women, a conspicuous feature of every Telugu Desam rally, under a multi-coloured canopy.

Convoy in Alar, India
Mr Naidu's convoy takes him to the election rally dais

A folk band jumps on stage and begins drumming as the women roar in approval. Some look up at the sky, shielding their eyes.

"Where is his flying machine?" mutters Saroja, looking for the chief minister's helicopter.

The rally organiser, LR Reddy, is now much happier as the crowds swell.

"CM [chief minister] will be pleased," he says, rubbing his hands in delight.

Leftists

Not so happy are the police and intelligence officers overseeing the rally.

The leftist People's War Group (PWG) is very active here and Mr Naidu narrowly escaped an assassination attempt recently.

Many party candidates are said to have stopped campaigning in parts of the state where the PWG is a major force.

Still, keeping this crowd in order is more of a concern for Haseena, a woman police constable just a few weeks into her job.

"Back mother, back," she shouts affectionately trying to keep an enthusiastic woman from crawling under the barrier.

"I get no help from them," she says, jerking her head in the direction of her male colleagues, who look back amused.

"How do they expect one woman to keep this horde in control?"

A crackle of static bursts from a policeman's handsets - Mr Naidu is about to arrive.

The excited crowd lunges forward as the chief minister's helicopter lands in a swirl of dust.

Mr Naidu emerges, waves and is driven in a convoy of white cars to the dais, 200 metres away.

Grey-suited police jog alongside as the crowd watches, enraptured.

The election, here at least, has finally sprung to life.


India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

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