In a broader sense, the Hindi heartland decides the fate of national politics. The cow beltwhich between Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan sends 214 members to Parliament, more than the southern states and Maharashtra put togetherhas a significance that goes beyond merely the numerical. For the saffron formation, the major gains in the 98 general elections57 seats in UP, 30 in MP and 30 in tandem with the Samata in Biharliterally formed the backbone of its presence in the 12th Lok Sabha. Clearly, for the BJP and its allies to get back to power, it would be essential to retain these seats or even better their performance. The BJP may not be able to establish the stranglehold it seeks over this dusty, backward region, despite Atal Behari Vajpayees feel-good factor. In UP, it battles a strong anti-incumbency feeling with the Congress working to regain lost ground along with the bsp, which may just emerge from the margins. In Bihar, the BJP and allies have to tackle the guiles of Laloo Yadav, who, though also facing a strong anti-incumbency trend, has mastered the art of organising elections. Digvijay Singhs deft touches in MP have largely been reserved for intra-party manoeuvres, but the BJP is more afflicted than it by infighting. And in Rajasthan, the Congress is trying to make amends for the Jat fiasco, reportedly triggered by partymen peeved at the elevation of the backward caste Ashok Gehlot as CM. The key question in the heartland is: can the BJP do it?