Mass rallies as India's parties go into campaign mode

Terrorism, development, dynastic rule and a controversial Hindu temple were the chief topics spotlighted Sunday as India's main political parties switched into election mode, dpa reported.

India's governing United Progressive Alliance's (UPA) term ends in May, and elections are expected to be announced soon for April or May.

The Congress Party, which leads the ruling alliance, organized a mass rally for party workers in Delhi, whilst the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) concluded a major convention in the western city of Nagpur.

The Congress rally was addressed by all major party leaders including party chief Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, himself a lawmaker.

The speakers largely dwelled on the issues of terrorism and development, as they asked party workers to highlight the claimed success of the UPA in improving the lot of farmers and weaker sections of society and empowering women.

Their main attacks focussed on the BJP, and neighbouring Pakistan - which India claims is going soft on terrorism. It alleges Pakistani extremists were responsible for the attacks on Mumbai in November that left more than 170 people dead.

"Terrorism is a big challenge and I want to tell people across the border that they should not mistake our calmness as weakness," Sonia Gandhi told the huge gathering of party workers.

She also criticized the BJP for raising the issue of building a temple to the Hindu god Ram in the northern town of Ayodhya once again.

Hindu hardliners claim that a temple at the site once marked the birthplace of Lord Ram and the temple had been torn down by Muslim rulers who built a mosque on the spot.

Groups of Hindu fanatics demolished the medieval Babri mosque in 1992, sparking nationwide sectarian riots that left more than 2000 people dead. The temple issue now lies with the courts.

On Saturday, leaders of the BJP once again repeated a promised to rebuild the Ram temple at Ayodhya. The Hindu right-wing party emerged as a powerful national party in the 1980s and 1990s largely thanks to its campaign to build the temple.

More than 80 per cent of India's 1.2 billion population are Hindu, 12 per cent are Muslims, whilst the remainder follow other religions like Christianity and Sikhism.

"We will build the temple, with the help of legislation if needed," BJP president Rajnath Singh was quoted as saying at the Nagpur convention by PTI news agency.

Sonia Gandhi took a potshot at the BJP Sunday saying: "Those who want to divide society, create polarisation on the basis of religion and those who use the name of Ram are against religion and cannot fight terrorism."

The BJP's star speaker at the Nagpur convention was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has faced criticism for his handling of the Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in which more than 1000 people, largely Muslims, were killed.

He is, however, regarded as an efficient administrator who has helped Gujarat become one of India's most economically prosperous states.

Modi launched a scathing attack on the Congress Party for promoting dynastic rule.

Sonia Gandhi's husband Rajiv Gandhi, his mother Indira Gandhi and his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru were all prime ministers of India.

The Congress Party elected Sonia Gandhi to be its leader after the 2004 general election but she refused to become prime minister and remained chief of the party.

"The conspiracy to promote one family's past is posing danger to the future of the country," Modi said without naming the Nehru-Gandhis.

Modi termed Manmohan Singh "an invisible prime minister" and said power without accountability had rested with "the family" for the past five years and this needed to be changed.

Singh, who recently underwent heart bypass surgery, could not attend Sunday's rally in Delhi but sent a message saying the government's flagship programmes and policy initiatives had helped better the lives of millions.

He spoke of his desire to build a progressive, secure and happy India and asked workers to carry the party's message and government's accomplishments to voters across the country.

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