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September 3, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Bellary

Despite the odds, backward Bellary may back Sonia

Krishna Prasad in Bellary

Sonia Gandhi is incredibly naive. Or incredibly arrogant. Or incredibly nonchalant. Or, impossibly, all three. But there is not one poster in the whole of Bellary in which she directly pleads with the bhaginiyare matthu bandhugale of the steel city to vote for her in Sunday's election.

Either she is naive about the ficklemindedness of the Indian voter who sometimes doesn't make up his mind till he enters the booth. Or arrogant about her chances in "safe" Bellary. Or nonchalant about which way the vote goes because, anyway, there is Amethi.

Either that, or we are incredibly blind, because there is nowhere in this town where she says "please".

Sure, there are Congress posters here and there, more there than here, but they could be Congress posters in any other constituency. Standard-issue party posters that don't quite reflect the kind of battle that the Congress president has on her hands here.

Andu Indira, Indu Sonia (Then Indira, Now Sonia), hisses one poster in the heart of town, while the ABVP, the Sangh Parivar's student outfit, is socking it to bus passengers between their eyeballs with stickers which scream: "Be Indian, Live Indian, Vote Indian." Abhivruddhige matha, Congressige matha' (Vote development, vote Congress), suggests another poster, while Sushma Swaraj is sticking it into the face of voters. 'Ellarigu namaskara. Swadeshige puraskara. Videshige tiraskara' (Greetings to all. Reward swadeshi. Reject videshi).

Make no mistake, Bellary is still a battle between two foreigners -- one Italian, one Indian -- but the BJP's propaganda machine has neatly turned it into a mini-referendum on the swadeshi versus videshi leadership issue that has exercised the nation for well over 18 months.

And, 48 hours before polling begins, Sonia is on very weak ground. Sure, she makes her appearance on familiar Congress turf -- slums, ghettos and villages -- but in occupying the mindspace of the educated, urban, forward-looking voter, Sonia has come a complete cropper. This can only be due to naivete, arrogance or nonchalance. Or all three. Because, as Yellappa Reddy, a farmer who lives 20 km from Bellary and presides over 120 acres of mirchi, cotton, mosambi and pomegranate plantations, says: "Bellary's villages like most villages are split almost equally in the time of elections. It's urban voters who make the difference in the end, who need to be wooed."

Which is precisely what Bellary, an otherwise safehouse for the Congress in 12 consecutive elections, has shown in the last two. Over the past 20 years, the Congress vote percentage has plunged from 64 per cent to 40 per cent, a full 24 per cent drop. That means nearly a quarter of the voters have moved away from the party. In the 1996 general election, the Congress' victory margin was a mere 4,000 votes.

Thankfully, for Soniaji, 70 per cent of Bellary is still backward; a feat managed with some ease by her party's MPs, Basavarajeshwari, who presided over a 19 per cent fall in the Congress's fortunes in three terms, and K C Kondaiah, who presided over a five per cent fall in two terms, before Sonia flew in the dead of the night.

No wonder, BJP strongman Murli Manohar Joshi says the satta bazaars of Calcutta are quoting Rs 1.20 on a Sonia win and 60 paise on a Sushma win. Meaning: Sushma has double the chances of winning.

Simple arithmetic suggests that Sonia needs to at least double every effort if she wants to make up lost ground. Double her poster-appearance, double her streetcorner meetings, double her door-to-door visits, double her efforts to speak Kannada, double everything.

But in a remote-controlled campaign, all she has proved is that the ants are in the Congress pants. First by spreading word that she had advanced her last public meeting, from September 3 to September 2, and then to compound the confusion, by sticking to the earlier schedule.

'Sonia Bellary mein atak gayi, pradhan mantri pad latak gaya (Sonia is stuck in Bellary, and so are her dreams of becoming PM),' croons Murli Manohar Joshi, a physics professor not given to too much poetry. Besides greater "signage" (posters, banners, cutouts), what has really given Sushma Swaraj the cutting edge in Jeans City is the clinical precision with which the BJP and its allies, not least the Sangh Parivar, have homed in on the three obvious weaknesses in Sonia.

a. Her inability as Congress president to be in Bellary all the time.

b. Her inability to get close to the people because of security reasons.

c. Her inability to speak Kannada, let alone good English.

On all those three counts, the BJP has surged way ahead. Sushma has been in Bellary from the moment she filed her nomination papers, and campaigns from dawn to dusk, meeting well nigh 20,000 people every day. Sonia has managed exactly two helicopter trips. Sushma hops from village to village, eats with the villagers, chats with the women, wears their clothes and laughs with them.

In contrast, Sonia with her Z-plus security gets a big minus because there is only so much access she is allowed to the people."As it is she is surrounded by tens of security men all the time. If she becomes an MP, how can we approach her?" asks Bhanu Prasad, a local trader, echoing feelings of remoteness that Sonia has willy-nilly sown. "With Sushmaji we won't have that problem."

'Bellariya nanna preetiya akkandire; thayandire (sisters and mothers of Bellary)' is about the most Sonia deigns to speak in Kannada to liven up the crowds. Sushma Swaraj's campaign cassette, Ranabheri, in fluent but hysterical Kannada, on the other hand, is all the rage downtown.

The BJP's campaign managers claim the tape has "sold" 30,000 copies. Like with all circulation figures, cut out of a zero and you get a more accurate picture. But even 3,000 copies is enough evidence of Swaraj's effort to get closer to the people by speaking their lingo.

In Atal Bihari Vajpayee's presence, Sushma delivers a ten-minute extempore speech in Kannada that leaves the prime minister dumbfounded. "I only hope she doesn't forget her Hindi, because that is the language she will have to use in Parliament." Applause.

Half-Telugu Bellary naturally expects a "glamour track" like in the Telugu movies. Even here, the Congress fails the masses.

Nanna thayiyannu nimmalige karedu bandiddene. Eva nimmavaru; neevu evarannu rakshisabeku (I've brought my mother to you. She is yours, you must protect her),' pleads Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia's only element of glamour during her campaign.

In contrast, the BJP and its NDA allies -- the Janata Dal (United), the Telugu Desam -- have left no star return without making a plug for Sushma Swaraj. Vajpayee, L K Advani, Chandrababu Naidu, Ramakrishna Hegde, George Fernandes, Vijayashanti have all been here.

Having stolen the march, the BJP -- without an MLA or a taluka panchayat member -- may yet fall behind in Bellary, thanks to its "70 per cent backwardness"; but a Sonia win can only be because of the durability of the Congress's 50-year-old electoral strategy. The four districts in the Hyderabad-Karnatak region -- Bellary, Bidar, Gulbarga and Raichur -- occupy the last four places in the latest human development index compiled by the state government, and at No 17 in a list of 20, Bellary is a standing testimony to the adage that voter-ignorance is bliss for our oldest political party.

That Bellary -- 46.64 per cent of whose population are below the poverty line -- has opted for Congress representatives in 12 consecutive elections in the last 50 years is a nice example of the illogic of the Indian voter.

That is probably the reason Sonia Gandhi's posters are not to be found in Bellary city. She probably doesn't need urban voters to win; she is comfortable as long as the people are "70 per cent backward" and most of those are in the slums, in the ghettos and in the villages.

For most of them, the "Gandhi" surname is all that counts on the ballot paper, and for Sushma Swaraj who battled one Gandhi (Indira) in the 1970s in Chikamagalur, battling another Gandhi (Sonia) in the 1990s in Bellary, might yet prove futile. But the point has been made.

Or has it?

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