Nehru dynasty wilts in heat of general election

INDIA'S THIRD general election in three years comes to an early climax tomorrow, when voters in the baking hot and impossibly remote Bellary constituency decide between Sonia Gandhi, Italian-born president of the Congress party, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) most effervescent female politician, Sushma Swaraj.

If Congress members had wished to bury their leader in the middle of India they could hardly have chosen a more suitable location: a sprawling rural constituency 10 hours by road from the nearest town with an airport, a place that is said to have only two seasons, summer and very severe summer, where the quality of the water is so dismal that the BJP candidate immediately came down with Bellary belly the day she arrived.

But Bellary has one great advantage for Mrs Gandhi: it has returned a Congress MP in each of the 12 general elections since independence. The party president is also contesting the Amethi constituency in Uttar Pradesh, northern India, which has been the Nehru-Gandhi pocket borough since Jawaharlal Nehru's day. (Prominent politicians often contest more than one seat in India.)

But in last year's election the non-dynastic Congress candidate was beaten by the BJP, and Congress is no longer confident the dynasty magic will make enough of a difference to close the gap. Hence the Bellary hedge.

Polling across India is being staggered over five dates, but with the Amethi poll taking place on the last date, 3 October, Congress's struggle to get the latest representative of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty into parliament for the first time now looks set to dominate the whole campaign.

Sonia Gandhi is Congress's biggest asset, but a fragile one. When she threw herself into campaigning 18 months ago, during the previous election campaign, she was a mystery woman, having sat sphinx-like on the political sidelines since the assassination in 1991 of her husband, Rajiv.

Since then she has gradually been dropping the veils. The more India sees of her, the less it likes her. Of all South and South-East Asia's dynastic widows and daughters - from Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan to Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, by way of Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka and Aung San Suu Kyi - Sonia Gandhi now seems without rival as the most ill-qualified, by temperament and intelligence, to carry the flame.

For years she rejected interview requests. When she relented last month, giving an extended interview on Rupert Murdoch's Star TV, it became obvious why she had never done so before. Perhaps the only aspiring prime minister in history to describe herself as "extremely shy", she conveyed no understanding of why she had gone into politics other than dynastic inevitability.

Any opponent wishing to attack her on the grounds of inexperience, unfittedness or inadequacy has the easiest job in the world. Throw in foreign origins and abominable Hindi and no wonder Congress leaders are betraying their nerves.

With their treasure rapidly wasting into an embarrassment, they tried to secure her the easiest possible time in Bellary by keeping her choice of constituency a secret until the last minute. But the ruling coalition was on its toes, and tapped intelligence reports to monitor her movements.

When she plumped for Bellary, the BJP was ready: it rushed in Sushma Swaraj by helicopter to file her nomination papers in the nick of time.

Accordingly, Mrs Gandhi now finds herself up against this tiny, vivid Hindu nationalist dynamo, an ex-minister in the BJP government and one of the party's few political celebrities, a "nattering nari" ("nari" just means "woman"), as she has been called, who can "talk the legs off a dining table".

Mrs Gandhi's foreign origins, formerly unmentionable, have become fair game to her opponents. At each of her dozens of street-corner meetings, Mrs Swaraj, who has no inhibitions about wrapping herself in the flag, cries "Victory to India! Banish the foreigner!" Congress, party of the freedom fighters who struggled for independence, finds even that laurel stripped from it.

Congress, jubilant last year when Mrs Gandhi finally agreed to fight for it, is now anxious and hesitant.

Bellary may be one of the safest Congress seats in the country, but it may be nowhere near safe enough. In the last election Congress triumphed over a divided opposition.

This time Mrs Swaraj is representing not just the BJP but a coalition embracing two locally strong parties as well. She has a good chance of winning.

Police in the eastern state of Orissa arrested two people in connection with the murder of a Christian missionary killed on Thursday by assailants wielding bows and arrows.

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