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How Safe Is Safe?

The Congress is taking no chances in the face of an all-out BJP campaign in Bellary

How Safe Is Safe?
THE Congress had envisioned a smooth entry into Parliament for Sonia Gandhi- from a quiet back-water, with a thumping margin and minimal fuss. They hadn't reckoned on a hyped-to-the-limit encounter with the BJP's favourite chattering-ram, Sushma Swaraj.

The battle for Bellary, as scripted by Advani & co, features Sonia as the embattled Goliath taking on a determined David in a pyrotechnic contest. Swaraj's in-your-face campaigning, the BJP's pundits figured, would capture the attention of the Pepsi-swilling classes nationwide. And they were right. Win or lose, Sushma has generated enough bytes to satisfy the BJP's media-managers and ensure her political rehabilitation.She had a headstart, tramping through the poverty-stricken slushscape of her new karam-bhoomi .The behenji -next-door, togged out in Mysore silk with the trademark track of sindoor bisecting her jasmine-encrusted coiffure, woos voters in confident Kannada, replaying her speech from village to village, from 9 am to well past midnight, day after day. Elarigu namaskara, swadeshige puruskara, videshige tiraskara ( greetings to all, victory to India, banish the foreigner).

She's a trooper, and works the crowd like the pro she is, clucking over the lack of roads, toilets, sewerage- in short, any semblance of development during the 12 terms of Congress rule in Bellary. "I'll nurture it like a mother," she promises. Constantly at her elbow is Lok Shakti leader and translator-in-chief, N. Thippanna, who gave the Congress a run for its money in '96. In contrast,Sonia is an airborne empress, touching down from village to village in a sanitised SPG cordon. It was a week before the Congress leadership woke up to the fact that the contest in Bellary was as much about bytes as votes. And that Sonia was coming off poorly in what was clearly a clash of personalities; the bahu versus the behenji . It responded with a personal, below-the-belt attack on Sushma and a frantic plea for Priyanka Gandhi. Sonia's USP, admitted a local leader, had nothing to do with her personality. "She doesn't have a finger on the pulse of the people." She would cash in on the enormous goodwill for the Gandhi clan and the deeply-entrenched Congress network. "I don't need her to come here. The Congress will win on its own," said one party worker.

Realising that the Gandhi name is still encashable, the centrepiece of the Congress campaign is the original Mrs G. At her meetings, Sonia unfailingly reminds the electorate of her 31 years as a member of the Gandhi family. She plays the bahu to the hilt, drawing on Bollywoodian scripts: "My baraat came here decades ago and only my ashes will leave this land." Karnataka, she reminds the crowds, offered Indira succour during her most trying times. Urged by her campaign managers, she occasionally attempts to reach out to the crowds and shake their hands. Priyanka is arguably the star campaigner. Clad in a saffron sari, she was a huge hit last week as she addressed the crowds in Kannada: "I've brought my mother here. Would you all take her as your own, protect her and bestow her with love and ensure her victory " .

For Sushma, the odds are prima facie insurmountable.The constituency is indisputably a Congress stronghold and has been for more than fifty years. The BJP is unknown, the lotus symbol seen first only in '96, when its nominee garnered 6 percent of the vote. As campaign manager D.H. Shankar a murthy, MLC, observed , " We don't have a taluka panchayat member, much less an MLA. " The BJP's entire electoral machinery, from Sushma's south Delhi entourage to the media managers and the foot soldiers, have been imported . Shankaramurthy himself is from Shimoga. 

Swaraj downplays her handicap. "I'm the joint candidate for Lok Shakti, the JD and the B J P," she stresses, pointing out that the total vote-share of the three was more than the Congress' in the last two elections. The Lok Shakti-JD did get 58 per cent of the vote and now are on a common platform, but the reality today is that their vote-share might be much lesser due to the strong anti-incumbency factor against the JD. Besides the party has split yet again. Although the Deve Gowda-led faction has little presence in Bellary (the Vokkaliga factor is negligible here), the split has eroded JD's credibility. The NDA-aligned JD(U) has also forfeited any claim to the Muslim vote.

The fact that assembly and Lok Sabha polls are being held together works against Sushma. Only three of the eight assembly candidates are fighting on a BJP ticket . The rest, even if part of the NDA, are contesting on the JD(U)'s arrow symbol and would be more inclined to preserve their seats than ensure voter- recognition for Sushma. Added to that is the pal-pable tension between Thippanna and JD(U) strongman M.P.Prakash, reflected in the animosity between their workers. A senior BJP leader says this could affect Sushma's prospects in two assembly segments, namely Kottur and Hadagali. Her main problem is an identity crisis as she attempts to attract voters in far-flung villages. For one, she'd never set foot in Bellary before filing her nomination.Also, the rural outreaches still harbour an unquestioning loyalty to Indira.

Bellary's very backwardness-low literacy, high infant mortality, low human development index- is a handicap for Sushma. Like the rest of the country, the BJP's support base in Bellary declines in proportion to literacy levels.Says Srinath, a computer-buff:"Educated people will vote for Sushma. But the rural people will vote for any member of the Nehru family." For all that, Sushma is a contender, her aggressive campaign bolstered by the military precision of the BJP stormtroopers. Some 12,500 party workers have been deployed for house-to-house campaigning, the objective:to familiarise voters with her name, face and symbol.Another 1,000 have been imported from Andhra Pradesh to target the sizeable Telegu population in this border constituency.Around 900 women workers have been let loose on the female electorate.Volunteers have been told to chivvy middle-class voters in particular on polling day.

SUSHMA is a tenacious and charismatic campaigner, and has the advantage of the personal touch.Most voters will never see Sonia, but by polling day Sushma would have covered (by road) at least 20 villages in each assembly segment. Her mass contact programme aims at addressing some 20,000 people a day in small, street corner meetings.Responses range from the tepid to the enthusiastic. This is apart from the mass rallies addressed by NDA leaders, a formidable line-up of whom are campaigning for her.While Vajpayee and Advani do not normally address rallies at the same venue, the prime minister followed up Advani's fairly successful rally in Bellary with one of his own. Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu also did his bit for Sushma, as did George Fernandes and Ramakrishna Hegde, regarded a charismatic leader by Lingayats who form 16.5 per cent of the 12-lakh strong electorate. Apart from their support for Hegde, who's seen as the protege of former Congress president S. Nijalingappa and one always blessed by Lingayat

maths s, the wealthy community exercises controlover some of the backward castes who've traditionally been in their employment.


That Sonia visited Nijalingappa in neighbouring Chitradurga earlier this year and sought the blessings of three-time MP Basavarajeshwari immediately after filing nomination papers reflects the importance of the Lingayat community. The four public meetings she addressed in Bellary last week were all in Lingayat strongholds.Having realised that victory could not be taken for granted, senior Congress leaders streamed in to add flavour to the campaign and, of course,to leave nothing to chance." We shouldn't be overconfident.Never underestimate the enemy," said Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress general secretary in charge of Karnataka.

By August 27, when Sonia made her first whirlwind tour of Bellary, it was hard to navigate the constituency without tripping over a Congress leader:Azad, state PCC chief S.M.Krishna, AICC secretary V. Narayanswamy, RS member Janardhana Poojary, Mohini Giri and Kumari Selja were all parked at Bellary's Pola Paradise Hotel (owned by a relative of Congress veteran Kotla Vijayabhaskara Reddy and once the favourite watering hole of AP politicians during prohibition). Exasperated local leaders wished they'd leave. "We spend more time receiving VIPs than campaigning," they said. The cherubic and ever-cheerful K.C. Kondaiah, MP from Bellary in the 12th Lok Sabha, is Sonia's campaign manager.Kondaiah had the Congress machinery humming by the time Sonia arrived;each of the constituency's 1,577 polling booths is covered by 20 to 25 party workers,who've been campaigning door to door. Every five or ten booths have their own leader,reporting to the nominees for their assembly segment.

Money is no object for either party. Estimates of the amount spent in the Bellary assembly segment alone range from Rs 1-4 crore. A tranche of funds arrived at the Congress election office a day before Sonia's arrival, to the immense relief of her campaign managers. The BJP's campaign staff ,although reluctant to name a figure, said Delhi was bending backwards to accommodate them. Aware of their new-found importance, the rates for volunteer workers have gone up (as both parties complain) from Rs 25 a day to Rs 50-100. Bellary is right on top. "I'm pleased she decided to contest from here. Just by filing her nomination,she has put it on the map. This is the best way of ensuring development in Bellary. We want to make it an industrial township in ten years," says Kondaiah. Whoever loses,Bellary will win- it's not going to fade from public memory in a hurry.

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