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Hi-tech lab only sign of life in ghost town

Akola (Maharashtra), April 12: 1.30 pm. It is a bad time to reach Akola — the heat gets so unbearable during afternoons that it turns into a ghost town.

Little wonder then that most people at the Congress office in this Vidarbha town are either deep in slumber or sprawled on dirty, tattered floor mats.

Weave your way across stinky movie halls showing pornographic films with titles like Chaloo Aunty and Savage Beach and you reach the office of the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh. A huge portrait of Prakash Ambedkar stares down at party workers, mostly Dalits, Muslims and the poor.

As D.. Phandare, the Mahasangh’s poll manager, dishes out crisp 500-rupee notes to party workers to carry out assignments, he puts on a fighting face. “Money is a problem but this election, like the last one, is ours. Ambedkar will sail through.”

Phandare is being optimistic because B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson is alone this time, with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party edging him out of their understanding. There is also less money and the cadre will secretly admit their enthusiasm is not what it used to be.

Alsi Building, top floor, is where the money is — and the enthusiasm. It is the BJP’s election office. Pumped-up workers have turned it into an e-hub high on energy and noise. They have even given it a hip name — the BJP Hi-Tech Campaign Lab.

The state-of-the-art office in Akola — where rickety autorickshaws refuse to go by the meter — sends close to 15,000 text and 3,000 voice messages through the day. Prashant Joshi, the electronic campaign in-charge, has installed six computers, fax machines, printers and scanners. A dozen activists work the Net and the e-world to spread the BJP’s message.

Work is on at the Vikas Video Rath, a contraption that will have A.B. Vajpayee, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan and local Lok Sabha candidate Sanjay Dhotre blaring out speeches on screens attached to lorries, tempos and auto-rickshaws.

But Anil Deshmukh, the state excise minister who recently banned youths below 21 from pubs and discos, is not cowed down by the e-assault. He says that of the 11 seats in Vidarbha, the Congress-NCP combine will win nine. “The BJP will be wiped out from here.”

The sun hits like a sledgehammer as you leave. Akola is still playing dead. Just then the cellphone comes alive. Vajpayee is on the line. “Namashkar, main Atal…” goes the voice message when Joshi cuts it short. “Just checking.”

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