|Thursday, 29 April 2004|
Political battle shifts to India's land of maharajahs
NEW DELHI, Wednesday (AFP)
India's main political foes have shifted base to the desert state of Rajasthan in the hope that 25 parliamentary seats up for grabs there can avert a hung parliament.
Opposition Congress leader Sonia Gandhi toured the northern state's Dausa constituency a day after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee ended the first leg of his tour of Rajasthan with a call against fractured voting in India's ongoing election that began April 20.
"Your vote is valuable and don't fritter it away," Vajpayee said in Churu town, as some 103 million people voted in 136 constituencies across 11 states in the third leg of national polls which are scheduled to end May 10 after two more rounds.
Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the premier would again hit the campaign trail Friday to woo Rajasthan's 38 million voters, who are traditionally Congress supporters.
Voting in Rajasthan and 58 more constituencies across six other states on the fourth leg of the elections is scheduled for May 5.
The 57-year-old Gandhi, emboldened by exit polls which predicted her Congress party faring better than it did in the 1999 elections, appeared in a fighting mood and launched a blistering attack on Vajpayee's BJP.
"The BJP and its allies made tall promises of bringing economic reforms, eradicating poverty and corruption ... but these all turned out to be hollow promises because none of them has been fulfilled," said Gandhi in the Congress bastion of Dausa.
She added that her Congress was confident of surging back to power once election results are declared on May 13.
Overnight exit polls that had Congress trailing the BJP also showed the ruling coalition risking the loss of its parliamentary majority after setbacks in some of the states that voted Monday.
But Vajpayee, seeking to hold the premiership for a fourth term since 1996, scoffed at the polls, saying that the BJP's ousting of Congress in December's provincial balloting in Rajasthan had proven previous polls wrong.
"No one said the BJP will get 120 of the 200 seats in the recent assembly polls in Rajasthan but many were surprised when the results came out," he said. Vajpayee also told an election rally in his constituency, Lucknow in northern Uttar Pradesh state that exit polls could at best help in making assessments but were in no way conclusive.
"Exit polls? I don't know what this whole business of exit polls means. I don't understand when people congratulate me on the basis of these exit polls. These are just indicators and the real poll is in the field when people vote," he told the meeting.
BJP president M Venkaiah Naidu said the ruling coalition would "surpass the best estimates" put out by pre-poll opinion polls and exit polls in the final two rounds, when voting is held in its strongholds.
However, since India's independence in 1947, the 119-year-old Congress has been out of power only for 11 years in Rajasthan and its local influence is widely attributed to the party's historic links with the princely estates that dot the deserts here.
Both the BJP and the Congress are fielding erstwhile princes and maharajas as candidates to woo Rajasthan's orthodox and largely-Hindu electorate, which still has deep allegiances to the royalty.
Produced by Lake House