In this factory town south of Delhi, thousands huddle in the baking sun, rising en masse to cheer as Sonia Gandhi's helicopter lands in a hurricane of dust. Mrs. Gandhi runs to a rickety podium, gives a short speech, and takes off after leading the crowd in a roaring "Jai Hind!" (Hail India).
If the Congress Party - now trailing in polls - wins five weeks of national elections that begin Sunday, it will be because rural laborers and farmers like those here today reach back in their memory banks and vote for another Gandhi.
As pure politics, the struggle for control of the world's largest democracy comes down to Gandhi versus acting Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. If Mr. Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins, it will be because of their success in rallying Indians behind the claim of a glorious military victory against Pakistan this summer, and of Vajpayee as a strong commander in chief.
What Indians most want is stability: something difficult to deliver at a time when India is fragmenting into competing castes and regional power centers.
Yet at its deepest level, the election choices represent two fundamentally different visions of India and its future. In Indian-speak, it is a contest between "Hindutva" and "secularism."
Hindutva is the core ideology of the BJP, the political expression of a larger, decades-long Hindu cultural movement. Hindutva stresses that all Indians born here have a sacred relationship with the soil, and are Hindus, whether or not they proclaim themselves some other creed. It is the embodiment of a Hindu identity politics that resonates with a growing segment of society, seen in the rebuilding of Hindu temples and a rediscovery and popularization of Hindu worship and symbols.
The Congress Party, by contrast, espouses secularism. Its precepts make a distinction between religion and ethnicity - and the state. Congress, the party of independence in 1947, for decades has been an umbrella group for Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and others. "What the Hindutva crowd is doing constitutes a great danger to the unity and integrity of India," argues Manmohan Singh, a former finance minister, Congress candidate from South Delhi, and a Sikh. "It is a great danger to religious and civil rights, and I hope Indians wake up."
BJP leaders disagree. "The concept of a secular state in the Western context can't apply to India, but minorities here are safe," says Kanchan Gupta, a BJP strategist who is an adviser to Home Minister L.K. Advani, a chief espouser of Hindutva. "Congress thinks in a Western idiom. We aren't against modernization, but we want a real India, not a copycat America."
On the campaign trail such differences are less evident. Indeed the BJP, which is forming an alliance with 24 other parties, has sought to temper the Hindutva message. Instead, in a Delhi neighborhood of steel and glass office towers, Vajpayee appeals to those looking for a strong India. These are the faces of software engineers and businessmen. Vajpayee speaks eloquently of India's new military vigor, of patriotic emotion. "There is danger brewing in the neighborhood," he says, a reference to enemy Pakistan, as the crowd claps decorously, as in a tennis match.
While Gandhi banks on the legacy of the family she married into, Vajpayee paints himself as champion of the Kashmir conflict this summer and the man who bravely tested nuclear weapons last year. The BJP has made Gandhi's "foreignness" a central issue - she is Italian-born - along with attacking her inexperience. They vow to change the Constitution to disallow foreigners from holding high office.
Last November, with Gandhi newly at the helm, Congress thrashed the BJP in local elections. With voters more interested in the rising price of onions than with the symbol of the mushroom cloud brought by the BJP-sponsored atomic tests, Vajpayee was widely blamed even by the BJP faithful for disarray and a lack of strength. In April, with Gandhi's help, the government fell - by a single vote of no confidence. It looked as if Congress were a shoo-in.
The political dynamic was changed by a lone shepherd wandering through the Kashmir mountains in May, who spotted quite a few mujahideen fighters from Pakistan who weren't supposed to be there. The result was the three-month Kargil war, as it is called here, which the government used as a national cause clbre.
By late July, Congress arguments that the BJP was responsible for allowing Pakistani forces past Indian lines seemed like petty carping. (This week the Indian magazine Outlook published a series of memos by the Army commander of Kargil dating to last summer - warning that Pakistan was preparing a military action. The commander was fired in May. BJP leaders were all aware of the memos, Outlook reports.)
Indian polls and pundits predict a major victory for the BJP, a party whose rhetoric under Vajpayee has been less extreme than hardliners would like. Yet polls here are not reliable. What concerns BJP strategists is the possibility that the 70 percent of India's 600 million voters who are rural and less literate may turn out in strength for Gandhi.
Yet many intellectuals, artists, and academics support Congress - not just rural peoples and minorities. Nor is the reach of BJP simply among the urban, educated middle class. The BJP has made significant inroads in the countryside, mainly through sister Hindu organizations that are responsible for Hindutva's religious and cultural expression. In states such as Tamil Nadu here in the south, new voters are attracted to Vajpayee's experience and persona, though not to a religious or cultural agenda. "I'm for Vajpayee, but I don't like [Home Minister] Advani," says James, a rickshaw driver in Madras, a city with a long anti-Brahman tradition. "I want a strong India, but no religion please."
Practically, the outcome of the elections may depend on which party proves more adept at coalition politics. Regional powers are growing in strength. Gone are the days when Indira Gandhi could replace Congress state leaders at will.
This third election in as many years is distinguished by one other factor: For the first time 600 million voters will make their choices from electronic booths - rather than by paper ballot.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society