Elections play key role in India's war footing

The ruling party hopes the troop buildup will sway voters in Feb. 18 state elections.

India's test last week of a new short-range ballistic missile and its continued massing of troops on the border with Pakistan are keeping tensions and a war of words alive in South Asia.

Yet India's muscle flexing now has less to do with rival Pakistan or the decade-long insurgency in Kashmir, a range of analysts say, and more to do with a stark problem facing the ruling government: staying in power.

A central and ignored storyline of the South Asia standoff, in fact, lies far from the Pakistan border. It is found instead in the swirling politics of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, a northern region often called the Hindi heartland or "the cow belt," which last week began a campaign for Feb. 18 elections.

If the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) "loses its stronghold in Uttar Pradesh, the government in Delhi will begin to crack," says Vireshwar Dewedi, spokesman for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a hardline Hindu group closely linked to the Hindu nationalist BJP.

India's BJP must score well in Uttar Pradesh to retain an effective mandate in New Delhi. Another point is equally clear: not only is the BJP in trouble, but a bad showing could seriously weaken Indian President Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose home base is the Uttar Pradesh capital of Lucknow.

In Uttar Pradesh itself, opposition parties are cynical about India's high state of alert. "The military buildup is now 100 percent related to elections in this state," says Ashok Kapoor, a media spokesman for the Samajwadi in Uttar Pradesh, a party of rural traders and farmers that is leading in recent polls. "Right now it is a survival game for the BJP. The hype about war and terrorism is a necessity for them. They want to woo voters at the last minute."

The war on terrorism, in fact, is considered enough of a vote-getter by BJP strategists, that the party has temporarily muffled plans to play on local anti-Muslim Hindu sentiments in the state through the time-worn Babri Masjid issue [see box below].

So low had the BJP dipped, in fact, that analysts argue India is being kept on high military alert to gain a patriotic Uttar Pradesh surge of support in the election season. Only after Dec. 13, following an attack on the Indian parliament that outraged the country, had the BJP's plummet begun to stabilize - partly because of a get-tough "war on terrorism" campaign drumbeat that every party has adopted. "We want better roads and drinking water," says the BJP president of Uttar Pradesh, Kalraz Mishra. "Development is an important issue. But the most important issue is terrorism. Terrorism and internal security. India is the victim of so many groups from Pakistan. We don't want war. But if anyone compels us, then it shall be war."

Stump speeches and travel by BJP officers is attended by bristling teams of machine-gun toting "black cat" security men who dramatically leap out of car convoys, startling sleepy villagers.

Uttar Pradesh is regarded as the great repository of power in Indian politics. By itself, the undulating northern plains state of 170 million would rank as the seventh largest country in the world. No government in Delhi for 50 years, including the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has been able to retain rule of India without Uttar Pradesh - something akin to winning both the South and California in US presidential politics.

The Hindu nationalist BJP rose to power in the 1990s largely due to the support from Uttar Pradesh region. An aspirant middle-class urban- voter base here was electrified by the BJP's heady message of a muscular Hindu "awakening" that would restore India to its former greatness.

Weeks after winning office in spring 1998, Mr. Vajpayee ordered the test of two nuclear devices - breaking India's long- standing refusal to "go nuclear." The following month, Pakistan tested as well. Last month, after the Parliament attack by alleged Pakistan-based militants, India responded with the largest military deployment in 30 years.

Indian leaders equated the Dec. 13 attack with the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks. American and British diplomats, fearing a war between the nuclear rivals - one that could impact US-led operations in Afghanistan - spent weeks talking the sides down. The dynamics seemed to culminate on Jan. 12, with a historic speech by Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to reverse the tide of "jihadi" elements in his society, and with the detention of some 1,500 Islamic radicals in Pakistan.

Given Pakistan's military assistance to US forces, and the domestic task of reversing years of a "Talibanizing" of Pakistani society, few analysts feel Pakistan is in a position to foment a war. Yet Indian leaders, who cautiously praising General Musharraf, still take a wait-and-see attitude on cross-border operations and imply that the Army will remain deployed for "a couple of months," according to Home Minister L.K. Advani.

The US dispatched Gen. Tommy Franks to Islamabad and Delhi for more talks this past week after India's missile test - broadcast on Indian TV nationwide - caused bitter words from Islamabad.

In the past year, rank and file Uttar Pradesh voters have been disillusioned with the BJP. Partly the problem is corruption. The BJP displaced the age-old patronage-laden Congress Party in Uttar Pradesh largely with promises of clean hands and incorruptible candidates. Yet last year the BJP chief minister had to resign after a series of scandals, including one involving million-dollar "tea parties." Observers credit new Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh for restoring discipline in the BJP.

The Samajwadi Party, currently in front, has featured its own vote magnet - film star Amitabh Bachchan, known recently as the host of India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" The Congress Party, the original "freedom struggle" party, is bouncing back and has turned to what one observor called "the ultimate weapon" - Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, daughter of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Currently, the BJP's main "trump card" in Uttar Pradesh, say sources in Delhi, is a list of 20 terrorists who the Indian government says reside in Pakistan. India is pressuring Pakistan to quickly turn over 14 of the terrorists who are not Pakistani nationals, including Ibrahim Dawood, allegedly responsible for the bombing of the Bombay Stock Exchange in 1993.

"If they [the BJP] can get even a handful of those terrorists extradited, it would legitimize everything India has been saying about Pakistan for 10 years," says a Delhi-based official with a leading international organization. "It would be the kind of triumph that could swing the vote in Uttar Pradesh."

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