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India: Election Campaigns in High-Gear - 2004-03-10

India's Deputy Prime Minister has launched a cross country campaign to gather support for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of national elections scheduled to begin April 20. Both the ruling and opposition parties are stepping-up their election campaigns.

Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani's campaign will take him across eight-thousand kilometers from south to north and west to east in a bulletproof van to address hundreds of rallies and meetings.

Mr. Advani launched the campaign Wednesday from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu State, in southern India. It's being dubbed the "Shining India" trip -- a journey in which a top leader of the ruling BJP will carry the message of "development, security and prosperity."

Subhash Kashyap, a political analyst at the Center for Policy Development in New Delhi, says the BJP has made development issues one of the major planks of its election campaign as it seeks to win reelection on the back of a strong economy. "The focus is on solving the problems of a people and selling the image of a prosperous, happy India on the move," he says. "This time it [focus] is on national development issue, good governance issue, providing good roads, providing electricity to the people, water to the people."

The road show has raised memories of Mr. Advani's last nationwide campaign in 1990 when he traveled across the country to rally support to build a Hindu temple over the site of a Muslim mosque. The journey was widely credited with helping the BJP gain power.

But this time Mr. Advani is trying to deflect attention away from controversy. He is trying to stress that the party that rose to prominence on its Hindu nationalist credentials is a secular party that wants to woo Muslim voters.

Mr. Advani was flanked by a handful of high-profile Muslim leaders in the BJP as he launched the campaign, and will be accompanied by them on some parts of his tour. The van in which he travels bears a picture of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and a man in a Muslim skullcap chatting on a mobile phone.

The elections will pit the BJP against the opposition Congress party led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. Mrs. Gandhi has already hit the campaign trail, addressing scores of rallies in some of India's most politically significant states.

The party is hoping to make a comeback after eight years in opposition. But pre-election surveys have put the BJP-led coalition ahead of the Congress party.

The staggered election begins April 20 and ends May 10.