The candidate sits demurely, hands folded and eyes downcast, waiting for her turn to speak. The gathered villagers, squatting under tents or shade trees, crane their necks attentively. Finally she rises and introduces herself as Sudha Yadav, "a woman from an ordinary family" who simply wants to serve her country.
Not once does she mention India's recent border clash in Kashmir, where Indian forces battled Pakistani-based combatants for two months near the town of Kargil. Not once does she mention her late husband, a Border Security Force officer killed by a Pakistani shell on May 26, making him the first Indian to die in the conflict.
But it is hardly necessary. At every campaign stop in this thriving region of farms and factories about 50 miles southwest of New Delhi, Yadav is preceded by speakers who extol her as "the wife of a Kargil martyr." Voting for her, they assert, is the least a citizen can do to honor the nation's war dead.
Yadav may not especially like it, but the 34-year-old high school chemistry teacher has been anointed as India's official war widow candidate, the embodiment of efforts by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to harness the patriotic fever that has swept India in the past three months.
With India just weeks from beginning its third set of national elections in three years, virtually every BJP candidate for Parliament, as well as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is making India's military sacrifice and victory a prominent campaign slogan. They would be fools not to, since surveys show that voters view Kargil as the government's highest achievement during 17 months in office--and that the issue has single-handedly given the BJP and its allies a major boost against their chief rival, the Congress party headed by Sonia Gandhi.
National elections will be held on five successive weekends beginning Sept. 4. More than 600 million Indians will cast votes for 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament, and a new prime minister will be chosen in October.
The wave of nationalistic feeling generated by the Kargil conflict this spring found its most intense expression at the funerals of slain Indian soldiers and border guards, whose lighted pyres transformed hundreds of home towns into emblems of national grief. At least 80 of the estimated 500 war dead came from Yadav's Haryana state, including her husband, Sukhbir Singh, 38.
"Every village, every family in this area has someone in the army. I've never seen such an outpouring of emotion when the bodies came home," said Anil Bharty, a BJP official from Haryana. "Her husband was our first martyr. He brought honor to the country, so we are grateful to the party for choosing her. We know she will win."
Truth be told, Yadav is a lot less comfortable wearing the mantle of war widow than her handlers suggest. She squirms evasively when asked her opinion of the Kargil conflict. She wrinkles her nose when asked how she feels being marketed as a hero's survivor, rather than as the accomplished educator she is. As a woman who holds a doctorate in chemistry, Yadav is still a rarity in India.
"Kargil is not an issue for me. I am very clear on that. I don't want to use a martyr's name to get into office," she said while being whisked between villages during a day on the stump this week. If people around her want to dwell on it, she added sharply, "I ignore it. It's their feeling, not mine."
Yadav's grief for her husband of a decade, she said, is "very private." Indeed, she has drawn some criticism for coming out of mourning so soon and entering politics; Indian widows traditionally remain in seclusion for months.
On the stump, she did seem sad and distant at times--though far more circumspect than India's most famous widow. Gandhi, who is running for Parliament and is the Congress party's likely choice for prime minister, mentions the 1991 assassination of her husband, Rajiv, a former prime minister, at virtually every appearance.
Yadav, in contrast, must be prodded for details of her husband's death. Shortly after he was posted to the Kargil area this spring, she said, she and their two young children joined him for a holiday. One evening he left their quarters at 6 p.m.; less than three hours later, she learned he had been killed by an artillery shell.
But if the candidate is shy about promoting her Kargil connections, the BJP machinery is playing the war card to the hilt. No campaign stop is complete without a local soldier or retired officer giving an emotional speech.
"The BJP brought our martyrs home and gave a ticket to one of their widows. By making her win, we can pay our debts to our dead soldiers," said Ratan Singh, a retired army colonel, who addressed crowd after crowd of villagers. Then someone would start up the chant: "Sukhbir Singh--his spirit lives! Sudha Yadav--long life!"
Yadav's opponent, an incumbent Congress party legislator named Inderjit Singh, does not seem particularly worried about the Kargil-related challenge. His seat, in the Mahendragarh district of Haryana, has been held comfortably by Congress for most of the last 33 years. Party officials assert their base of support is solid and that voters will see through the BJP ploy.
"She is no competition for us at all. They're just trying to exploit and cash in on patriotic sentiment," said Siddharta Yadav, Inderjit Singh's spokesman. What's more, he asserted, the candidate "is not a Kargil widow at all. Her husband was not [fighting] on the border. Some [shell] splinter hit him. . . . This is a fraud, and the people aren't going to buy it."
That may prove true, but in most places where Sudha Yadav stopped, the crowds seemed magnetically drawn to the shy, soft-spoken woman in the blue and white sari.
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Sudha Yadav campaigns Tuesday in India's Haryana state. The country's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is capitalizing on her war widow's status.