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Elections in Populous Indian State Test for Ruling Party - 2002-02-15

A multi-day election that began Thursday in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, is seen as a key test for the country's ruling party. Local issues dominated the campaigning for new state legislators, but India's tensions with Pakistan are also an election issue. The election in Uttar Pradesh - with nearly 100 million eligible voters, is seen as a litmus test for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, holding a final campaign rally in the temple city of Ayodhya, are vocal, but many are also worried. Final polls going into the election show the BJP in a virtual tie with its strongest rival, the Samajwadi Party.

The BJP gets most of its support from Hindu middle and upper class business people, while the Samajwadi Party has traditionally been supported by what are known as lower, or "backward castes," and Muslims.

The BJP has ruled Uttar Pradesh for five years, and the state is a key bastion of support for the party. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's constituency is in Uttar Pradesh. Many political analysts have said if the BJP loses control of the state, India's fragile coalition government will be weakened, and Prime Minister Vajpayee's authority and stature diminished.

On a final campaign swing, Rajnath Singh, the BJP chief minister of the state, has said that will not happen.

"There is no question about losing this election in Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party will have a full-fledged majority, and we will form the government in Uttar Pradesh. There is no doubt at all," Mr. Singh says.

Voting is being staggered over several days to allow tens-of-thousands of police to be moved to different locations to provide election security. Voting is also taking place in three other states, but the Uttar Pradesh state assembly, with more than 400 seats, is the big prize in this election. Final results from all four states are expected by February 24. At nearly every campaign stop, Mr. Singh tells prospective voters that a vote for the BJP is a vote of support for Prime Minister Vajpayee's tough stance with Pakistan. India has moved hundreds-of-thousands of troops to its border with Pakistan in the wake of a terrorist attack on India's parliament that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-backed militants.

But Rajnath Singh says the troop buildup on the border is not politically motivated.

"Troops are deployed there for the border security, and not for election purposes. Our internal and external security should not be connected with the election, or with politics," he says.

Samajwadi Party leaders say Rajnath Singh's constant appeals to patriotism are a sign of desperation. Amar Singh, the general secretary of the opposition party, says he supports Prime Minister Vajpayee's stance toward Pakistan. But he says there is also a perception that the BJP is using national security issues as an election tool.

"I think, definitely, the troops at the border - all this - that has definitely got a link with the UP election. But, at the same time, as a responsible politician, they (BJP) are in government. And Atal Behari Vajpayee might be the (political) opposition, but I consider him my prime minister, as well. As prime minister of India, if he thinks that these troops are essential at the border, I am definitely with him. I do not want to make an issue of this, because this pertains to national security. But, what we are saying is that the perception is definitely there, and at times in public life, perception becomes larger than the reality," he says.

Amar Singh says he believes the election in Uttar Pradesh will be decided on caste issues, public disgust with corruption and Muslim anger over plans by Hindu nationalists to build a Hindu temple at a disputed site in Ayodhya that both Hindus and Muslims claim as holy ground.

Tensions with Pakistan, he says, will not be the deciding factor when voters determine who will run India's most populous state.