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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 April, 2004, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
India's governing party woos the south

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Karnataka

National Highway 4 stretches out before us, a shiny splash of black asphalt cutting across a dusty brown, arid landscape.

National Highway 4
National Highway 4 - ' What a road!'

We are near Hubli in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, a town on the highway, which connects distant Bombay to the boomtown of Bangalore before winding its way on to Madras on India's south-east coast.

It is part of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Golden Quadrilateral highway project, which aims to link the capital Delhi to four other major cities - Bombay, Bangalore, Madras and Calcutta.

Hanumanthappa, a local farmer, shields his hand against the harsh midday sun as he gazes at the highway.

"What a road!" he whispers in awe.

"At night you can hear the trucks roar along at high speeds. It has made a huge difference to our lives."

Along the highway, people nod in agreement. The improved road has brought in greater traffic, increasing the number of people who use the restaurants, phone-booths, shops and other services that have sprung up alongside.

"News of the highway project has spread across the countryside," says local journalist Gurunath.

"It is the first time many feel that something tangible has been done by a government."

"The Vajpayee wave is very strong in rural areas - it is inexplicable and incredible," adds veteran journalist VN Subba Rao.

These are words that are music to the ears of officials of Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

'Extraordinary change'

The BJP sees Karnataka as its gateway to southern India.

BJP candidate  Anant Kumar Hegde
The BJP's Anant Kumar Hegde on the campaign trail

If it performs strongly in the current parliamentary elections, as well as state elections which are being held simultaneously here, it believes it can shake off the tag of being a party confined to the Hindi-speaking belt in the north and central India.

Senior BJP leader, Arun Jaitley, forecasts a big political change in Karnataka, which has been a stronghold of the opposition Congress party since independence in 1947.

"We have seen in Karnataka an extraordinary surge in favour of the BJP" he says.

He tells BBC News Online that a victory in Karnataka is very important for the BJP to be seen as a truly pan-Indian party.

"That is why we have put in our very best in terms of efforts to come out with our best ever performance."

Hardline politicians

Just days before campaigning ends, the BJP flies down its controversial Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi to address several rallies.
Muslim women
The mood is sombre among Muslim voters

Mr Modi has been accused of doing little to prevent riots in his state two years ago, which led to the deaths of more than a 1,000 people, mainly Muslims.

"Today Karnataka needs a change and BJP can bring about that change," he says at a rally in Mysore.

Despite the apparent appreciation for the BJP, many in Karnataka are uncomfortable with some of its more hardline politicians and policies.

Along the coast, where the BJP has a strong presence and is expected to do very well, the mood is sombre among the Muslim and Christian minorities who make up almost 15% of the population.

Christians in particular have a very visible presence along the coast, which is sandwiched between Kerala and the former Portuguese enclave of Goa.

George Varkey, who lives in Mangalore, sees the BJP turning India into a Hindu rather than a secular nation.

"That is not fair. Everyone has to live here," he says as he walks out of Sunday service at the 100-year old St Aloysius Church.

But others such as Norman Moras says they have changed their perception of the BJP.

"Christians were against the BJP but now there is a rethinking," he says between rounds of rummy at the Mangalore Catholic Club.

"Vajpayee's personal image has a lot to do with it."

Controversy

But coastal Karnataka, has been a stronghold of the BJP since the 90s because of its trading and mercantile communities who back the party's economic policies.
Congress party MP Margaret Alva
Congress MP Margaret Alva - the BJP is 'party of the rich'

"They have a network of strong leaders in the area," says journalist Subba Rao.

Many of these leaders have strong Hindu nationalist roots and are now hoping to win parliamentary seats for the party.

In the Canara constituency, the BJP has fielded Anant Kumar Hegde against the sitting Congress MP, former minister Margaret Alva.

In the 1990s Mr Hegde led a controversial campaign to raise the Indian flag over the Idgah Maidan, a Muslim prayer ground.

It led to violent clashes in which several died, and Mr Hegde still faces criminal cases in connection with the controversy.

He says he is very committed to controversial programmes such as building a temple on the ruins of a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya and other Hindu nationalist policies.

"I will certainly fight for a uniform civil code and a ban on cow slaughter. We are committed to this," he says. (Under the current civil code, Muslim men are, for example, allowed more than one wife).

Basic complaints

As he campaigns in villages deep in the countryside, Mr Hegde steers clear of controversy confining his pledges to economic programmes.

Yellamma
Villager Yellamma is sceptical of BJP promises - 'nothing has improved in 50 years'

"I need your support to strengthen the hand of the prime minister, to bring you the best government India has ever had," he tells villagers in Golgod.

It's a message that is received with some scepticism in the remote village, deep in the forest and accessed only by dirt tracks.

"Nothing has happened here in 50 years, says Yellamma who runs a small teashop.

"Look at it - we live in mud huts, we have no roads. When it rains we feel we are living on an island because everything is washed away."

Mr Hegde's opponent believes the villagers of the area will continue to back the Congress, as they have all these years.

"The BJP stands for the rich... they have no programme for the rural people," says Margaret Alva.

"There is a drought, no drinking water in the villages on both sides of this highway which they are building. The common people are watching tankers and tankers of water spilt on the highway to construct them."

Back on National Highway Four Hanumanthappa says he is still unsure of he will vote for.

It is voters like him who hold the key to the BJP's dream of driving into the south.


India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

Cabinet members Old faces return
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