Vajpayee rings changes in latest polling campaign

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 March, 2004, 12:00am

What should an ordinary citizen do if a crank caller happens to be the country's prime minister: listen respectfully, or hang up?

This is the dilemma facing millions of Indians as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unleashes a multi-million rupee, hi-tech campaign for the parliamentary polls scheduled to take place from April 20 to May 10.

'This is Atal Behari Vajpayee speaking,' says the familiar, sonorous voice as it goes on to recount the domestic and foreign policy achievements of the national government.

There is no crude, direct pitch for votes - only the promise that India can become 'great' if its most popular leader is given more time to govern.

'I was in the gym when my mobile rang and it was the prime minister calling. I was completely thrown,' said a fashion exporter after Mr Vajpayee's recorded message began going out last week on India's fast-expanding phone network.

The BJP's technologically savvy general secretary, Pramod Mahajan, recently held a PowerPoint media presentation to unveil what he called the party's 'e-campaign'.

For the first time in an Indian election, the BJP will utilise new technology such as mobile phones, the internet and satellite television music channels to get its message across to voters, especially the young.

'There are a total of about 600 million voters in the country and through this 'e-campaign' we hope to reach about 120 to 150 million,' said Mr Mahajan.

The latest opinion polls put the BJP far ahead of its main rival, the Congress Party.

As many as 60 per cent of voters prefer Mr Vajpayee as prime minister, while only 20 per cent of voters want the Congress's Italian-born leader, Sonia Gandhi, as premier, according to a poll by The Times of India released at the weekend.

In the 1980s, the Congress was seen as the computer-savvy party. Now it appears to have run out of not just ideas, but also money, as support has dwindled.

Congress leaders complain that there are no funds even for the more traditional-style campaigning - loudspeakers blaring the message from jeeps or rickshaws. BJP coffers, in contrast, are overflowing.

There is only one consolation for the opposition.

Voters unhappy with rising unemployment and the widening Hindu-Muslim religious divide under the BJP are saying they will hang up if Mr Vajpayee makes a call.

But only when the votes are counted on May 13 will the prime minister discover if those who treated him as a crank caller actually amount to a minority of voters or not.