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Millions of Indians Prepare to Vote for Next Parliament - 2004-04-15

Millions of Indian voters head to the polls starting next week in a national parliamentary election. India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP called the poll to capitalize on its recent economic and diplomatic successes. But the rival Congress Party still has a strong emotional pull.

Voters cheer Rahul Gandhi during a campaign stop in Amethi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where he is running for a parliamentary seat for the opposition Congress Party.

The Gandhi name carries a lot of weight in India. Rahul Gandhi is the son, grandson and great-grandson of three Indian prime ministers, two of whom were assassinated while in office. But the 33-year-old first-time candidate dismisses the suggestion that political success depends on family history.

"People say, 'Oh, you know, in India people vote for dynasty.' I think that's ascribing too little intelligence to the Indian people," he said. "Dynasty may be recognition, but beyond that you have to work."

Some observers are casting this election as a battle between the dynastic politics associated with the Gandhi family and the prime minister's portrayal of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, as the one making India wealthy, modern and an important player on the world stage.

The Congress Party campaign has focused on alleged government corruption and the ruling coalition's failure to change the lives of millions of poor.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called the election for the 545-member parliament six months early, analysts say, to capitalize on a wave of recent support following renewed peace talks with long-time enemy Pakistan.

Economic reforms since the early 1990s have also given India one of the world's highest economic growth rates and helped foster its technology industry. Hence the BJP's campaign slogan "India Shining."

"Certainly BJP is trying to project itself as the architect of the new process, which has spawned a new middle class in India," said Ashwini Ray, a professor of Political Science at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "By some reckoning, a very significant number, close to 300 million."

The issues in this campaign are a far cry from those in the last election in 1999, when the relationship between India's majority Hindus and minority Muslims dominated politics.

Much of the debate focused on a controversial holy site in Ayodhya, in the prime minister's home state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1992, Hindu mobs tore down the 16th century Barbri mosque, claiming it was built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple. Critics say the BJP, which identifies itself as a Hindu party, came to power by manipulating voter sentiment on the temple-mosque issue.

The BJP dismisses those charges, and observers agree it has scarcely used the Hindu-Muslim question in this campaign. Mr. Ray thinks the BJP has learned a lesson from a surprising source, its political rivals, the Congress Party.

"I think the BJP would like to ? become more and more like the Congress [Party] - representing as many of the diverse identities which constitute India's social fabric," said Mr. Ray.

Although dozens of parties are contesting the polls, the question before India's 675 million voters boils down to whether the Congress Party can do more than the BJP has done in its five years in power.

Political analysts say the BJP is likely to win more seats in the parliamentary election - but not a majority, meaning it will form a coalition government. But they say the Congress Party's appeal is such that it will remain India's dominant opposition force.