Karnataka faces crucial election

BANGALORE, India Thu May 8, 2008 1:12pm IST

A supporter of India's ruling Congress party is seen through the party's flag at an election rally in Bangalore May 7, 2008. REUTERS/Arko Datta

A supporter of India's ruling Congress party is seen through the party's flag at an election rally in Bangalore May 7, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Arko Datta

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BANGALORE, India (Reuters) - In a dustbowl of a rally in South Asia's "Silicon Valley", India's most powerful politician struggled this week to inject life into a state election campaign that may influence the national government's chances of re-election.

The unrelenting heat and dust had taken its toll on tired spectators with newspapers shielding heads from the sun. Few clapped at the end of Sonia Gandhi's speech about keeping the state capital Bangalore as an IT hub.

Most just dashed for the exit.

"Please explain to us what she said," said Ashwini, a young computer student. Like many in Karnataka which has its own language, she did not understand a word of Gandhi's speech in Hindi, dominant in the north of the country.

The crowd's wilting enthusiasm and the weak communication skills of Gandhi symbolised the troubles of the Congress party and its ruling coalition in India.

Millions will vote in the election, held in three stages this month from May 10. It will be the first major state election this year and a barometer of support for India's two main parties, Congress and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), before general elections due by early 2009.

The state vote, in which Congress is trying to beat the BJP and a smaller regional party Janata Dal (S), could influence the timing of a general election and give the winner crucial political momentum in the run-up to the national vote.

In a state where coalition squabbling has hampered policymaking for the past four years, a clear victory for any party could also give impetus to infrastructure reforms, from power to public transport.

The reforms are seen as vital for an increasingly chaotic IT hub trying to guard its global outsourcing status.

Congress is desperate to win. It has lost or performed poorly in a string of state elections over the last year. Inflation, perceived weak leadership and an economic boom failing to percolate down to millions of poor have hit the party hard.

The BJP is on a winning streak, snapping up state elections with charismatic leaders and promises of infrastructure projects and market reforms that it says are needed to keep India booming.

"It's a crucial election. It's the first since the government's budget and a real test for Congress given rising inflation," said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

If Congress does well - and it recently passed a populist budget that forgave billions of dollars in farmers' debt -- it could use its new-found momentum to call general elections before the end of the year, six months before the end of its term.

Congress sees its trump card as Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who renounced her own chance to become prime minister despite winning national elections in 2004.

Gandhi's strength may not have been in her speech but in the local leaders by her on the podium, each representing a piece from the state's jigsaw of castes and groups, from Vokkaligas and Lingayats to Muslim leaders in this former Congress bastion.

But if these vote banks fail, it could give the BJP all they need to help secure its first state election victory in the south of India.

The BJP lost to Congress in 2004 general elections amid a backlash over economic reforms but also due to its weakness in the south.

"GATEWAY TO THE SOUTH"

The party is hoping to use Karnataka as a gateway to the south and gain a larger national footprint.

"The BJP basically lost the last general election because of its defeats in the south," said Sachidananda Murthy, editor of the Week and a Karnataka watcher. "So Karnataka is vital."

The BJP wants to capitalise on the problems facing Bangalore which it sees as mirroring the shortcomings of Congress rule at the national level. A byword for outsourcing, the city has suffered from poor infrastructure and appalling traffic that has taken off some gleam from "the back office" of the world.

The split between Bangalore and the rest of the state, where poor farmers appear centuries away from the crowded nightclubs of young IT workers, echoes India's wider social tensions.

In Ramanahalli, a short drive from Bangalore, villagers could see over their coconut trees to the control tower of Bangalore's new international airport. But they complained of water shortages, rising food prices and plans for the state government to seize their land for development.

"Everyone talks about India shining, but can you see it here, so close to Bangalore?," said Thimmaiah, a 42 year-old villager.

Few polls are reliable. Many people fear a hung parliament. That happened in the last vote, plunging Bangalore into years of political infighting that delayed new infrastructure projects.

Janata Dal's refusal to hand power to BJP last year as part of a coalition deal even forced presidential rule to be imposed.

"Coalition politics is the spectre we fear. Bangalore will lose out," said S.M. Krishna, former Karnataka chief minister now helping run Congress's election bid. "We need single-party rule."

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