Notebook: India's dynasty gambles on old loyalties

Sonia Gandhi thought she had a safe seat, but her complacency is being tested
The hamlet of Vittalapora clings to the side of a granite hill in the middle of nowhere in Karnataka, southern India. The empty landscape of scrub, pasture and cotton fields stretches away to a chain of blue hills in the far distance. It's 4.20 pm on 3 September: pumpkin time approaches.

Sushma Swaraj, candidate for the ruling alliance in the general election, the woman on a mission to beat Sonia Gandhi, must finish campaigning by 5pm or she will be disqualified.

This is, therefore, the last stop on the tour. In 14 days Ms Swaraj has travelled more than 4,000km, starting at 4 am and getting back at midnight, addressing 25 to 30 meetings every day, speaking in the local language, Kannada, which she says she learned in the first three days of the campaign.

And in between the meetings she has the likes of me to pacify. The way to interview practically any Indian politician at election time - the heavily cordoned Mrs Gandhi being the obvious exception - is to slither uninvited into the back of their car after a campaign stop, and fire away.

Ms Swaraj is tired and a little croaky but far from down as the car climbs into Vittalapora, and then you see where she gets her energy. A swarm of villagers descends on the car like happy bees, whooping and thumping the boot and bonnet and banging on drums. Young girls in green and golden saris bring brass trays containing petals and incense and rotate them solemnly over the bonnet, giving the candidate the welcome of a returning village daughter.

The hamlet contains barely a dozen whitewashed mud huts, but in a flat area in the middle, before a bamboo stage, 200 villagers, mostly women, are sitting very quietly and attentively on the ground, with another hundred standing behind them. Ms Swaraj ascends the stage and begins talking to the people in Kannada; quite quickly it is apparent why she is one of the stars of her party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"Every constituency I have stood for I have adopted as my child," she told me in the car, and this cliche comes to life when she speaks. She has the large, bright eyes of some small friendly mammal; her face is all motherly curves and dimples, and the big red spot on her brow and the red paste in the parting of her hair declare her a proud and pious Hindu. And when she speaks it is as if she were addressing only one person, in words arising just now to her mind - not repeating for the 300th time (in a foreign tongue) the same speech.

At Vittalapora, as everywhere before, she makes just two points: Mrs Gandhi, her opponent, is a foreigner by race and religion, with no experience of politics; and the Congress party she heads, for which this constituency, Bellary, is one of the safest seats in the country, has done nothing in 50 years to repay the voters for their loyalty.

If Ms Swaraj is as popular across the rest of this huge constituency of 1.3 million voters as she is in Vittalapora, Bellary will be Mrs Gandhi's political graveyard. And it will serve Mrs Gandhi and her party right.

Congress has always been a complex mixture of the modern and the reactionary, but 50 years ago it was the best embodiment of India's progressive urges. Today, in a place like this, it is just the opposite. The only voters it can depend on are the most backward, the poorest of the poor - not because Congress has been their champion and changed their lot, but because they are too uneducated to change the habit of a lifetime.

If Mrs Gandhi gets their votes, it will be because Congress's gamble on their stupidity has come good. Mrs Gandhi has spent only two days campaigning in the constituency, reading out her speech in Hindi before large crowds, and even this commitment of time may have been more than originally intended before the Sushma guided missile hit town. "They thought she would only have to file the nomination and collect the certificate," Ms Swaraj remarked caustically.

If Mrs Gandhi wins, Congress will have found the constituency where people are too dumb to ask whether her striking inadequacies as a candidate - her inexperience, her remoteness, and, yes, her foreignness - matter. A place dopey enough to vote for the dynastic principle. The arrogance is breathtaking. One local Congress grandee expressed it to me very well. "It will be a privilege," he said, "for the people of Bellary to elect Sonia Gandhi."

But if Congress has got it wrong, Bellary will be seen as a watershed, both for Congress and the BJP, which is the main pillar of the National Democratic Alliance, the governing coalition. Bellary is classic marches land, border territory where the Dravidian culture of southern India met and mingled, violently and peaceably, with the Aryan culture of the north.

Something similar is happening in this election. While the BJP is theoretically a national party, it has never had any strength in the south before; in last year's general election, the BJP candidate for Bellary gained only six per cent of the vote. But under the imperatives of power - and the crafty stewardship of prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee - the BJP is visibly changing.

Two years ago it was regarded as "untouchable" by other parties because of its commitment to radical Hindu nationalist goals. For the sake of harmony with its many coalition partners, all controversial goals have been set aside. What the party stands for has accordingly become rather muddy. But it is the party which fought and "beat" Pakistan at Kargil; in the simplest terms, its nationalistic credentials have proved sound. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, it has a partnership with a local party, Telugu Desam Party, whose leader, Chandrababu Naidu, is the boldest executor of economic reforms in the country. In Ms Swaraj, it has a northerner who is a champion of the touchies and feelies.

And Congress? "What can I do?" Congress's last and rather pathetic leader, Sitaram Kesri, lamented. "I have only a widow!"