Faction fights

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

HARYANA Faction fights By T.K. Rajalakshmi in Rohtak

IF there was one State in the north, other than Delhi where the Congress had fewer obstacles in winning a comfortable number of seats, it was Haryana. But the situation is not so comfortable this time as faction feuds have begun to emerge in the party. These factions are led by some ambitious leaders, each one trying to establish himself as an alternative to Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. These leaders, some of whom are Ministers in the Hooda Cabinet, have expressed their unhappiness rather publicly over the distribution of the party ticket and have accused the Chief Minister of ignoring the interests of certain castes. Some of them even approached the party high command in Delhi with their grievances.

On April 14, Birender Singh, Finance Minister and a strong claimant for the Sonepat seat, declared his unwillingness to be part of the campaign rallies led by Hooda. The Congress nominee for Sonepat is Jitendra Malik, a Member of the Legislative Assembly and a Hooda loyalist. The Finance Minister wanted the Sonepat seat for himself as it is a comfortable seat for the Congress, said a Congressman in Rohtak.

In view of the factionalism and the unpopularity of the sitting MP, Avtar Singh Bhadana, Faridabad may no longer be considered a safe seat. So a party that romped home with nine out of 10 seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and secured an overwhelming majority in the Assembly elections a year later may find even reaching the halfway mark difficult. In the Assembly elections, the Congress consolidated its votes in a decisive manner, winning 67 of the 90 seats. There was no challenge to Hoodas leadership then.

Four years down the line, the law and order situation has deteriorated, industrial unrest across the State has been put down brutally and the governments acquisition of land for industry has faced resistance. The people have begun to see the Hooda government as no different from the previous one led by Om Prakash Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). Yet, Hooda is considered the Jat alternative to Chautala. The Jat vote, political observers say, had shifted from the INLD to the Congress in a big way. The INLD and the BJP are contesting five seats each, as constituents of the NDA. The BJP may find it difficult to retain Sonepat, the only seat won by the NDA in the previous elections. The INLD drew a blank.

Another reason why the Congress may face an uphill task is the entry of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) headed by Bhajan Lal and his son Kuldeep Bishnoi on the election scene. Political observers pointed to a possible understanding between the INLD and the HJC over some seats, including Hisar where Bhajan Lal is contesting.

The troubles for the Congress increased as A.C. Choudhary, Minister for Urban Local Bodies, protested against the State leadership for ignoring the claims of the Punjabi community. He even threatened to resign. Efforts are on to placate him.

The BSP is trying to get a foothold in the State. Party workers pointed out that Mayawati addressed four massive rallies in the State. At all her meetings, Behanji appealed for a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative, said Shekhar Raj Sharma, son of Raj Kumar Sharma, the BSP candidate for Rohtak. Raj Kumar Sharma, who was with the BJP for more than two decades until 2007, faces Dipender Hooda, sitting MP and son of the Chief Minister.

Unable to hold on to the Amabala (S.C.) seat, which the BSP had won in the past, all energies are focussed on Gurgaon, which has a decisive and sizable Meo Muslim population. The party candidate for the seat is Zakir Hussain, son of the late Meo leader Chaudhary Tayyab Hussain. Congress nominee Rao Inderjits antecedents are as lofty as that of Zakir Hussains. His father, Rao Birender, was a well-known Ahir leader in southern Haryana. BSP candidates are depending on social engineering, hoping that while they get the caste votes of the candidate, the vote bank of behanji would automatically come to them.

The Congress has an advantage in the sense that it faces a fragmented and disparate opposition. Inderjit Singh, CPI(M) State secretary, said a third front in the State could have taken charge had the BSP, the NCP, the HJC and the Left come together on some issues. On the basis of a common minimum understanding on policies, we wanted to prevent the division of the prospective third front parties such as the BSP and the HJC. Unfortunately, the leaders of these parties did not understand the seriousness of the situation. This kind of a platform could have formed the basis for an alternative. Maybe we can take it up in the future, he said.

Inderjt Singh said that the BJP-INLD alliance had hardly any issue to campaign against the Hooda government. The model of development pursued by the Congress did not help the common man in any way, he said, but as none of the other parties, barring the Left, had an economic agenda different from that of the Congress, the electorate did not feel optimistic about the alternatives. The CPI(M) and the CPI are contesting Sirsa and Karnal. Sirsa has the largest number of S.C. votes in the State. The CPI(M), he said, had gained a foothold in Hisar, Sirsa, Jind and Bhiwani, thanks to its work among the peasantry and agricultural workers.

Ram Kumar Bahbalpuria, the partys candidate in Sirsa, is the State general secretary of the All India Agricultural Workers Union. The Congress has fielded Ashok Tanwar, the all-India president of the National Students Union of India, although the INLD candidate, with some support from the HJC, seems to be in a better position to win at this stage. Interestingly, Congress factionalism is at its lowest in this constituency.

The Hooda government has done nothing. Development is about creating jobs. The Congress government managed to get only one unit of Asian Paints during its regime. How many jobs do you think that will generate for the whole State? Sant Ram, former MLA and INLD spokesperson asked. He said Hoodas son would be defeated in Rohtak.

PUNJAB Back to identity politicsBy Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

THE Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), which is facing a strong anti-incumbency sentiment, is hoping to cash in on the fresh anger in Punjab against the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Just ahead of voting in the State on May 7, the SAD (Badal)-led government has managed to stir up passions by organising mass protests in New Delhi and in several districts of Punjab after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) exonerated the Congress leader Jagdish Tytler in the anti-Sikh riots case.

Farmers, local chaiwallahs and shopkeepers, journalists or whoever this correspondent met in Patiala, Sangrur and Bhatinda discussed only one issue: the clean chit to Tytler. When the journalist Jarnail Singh hurled his shoe at Home Minister P. Chidambaram at a press conference in New Delhi, opinion was divided about the form of protest. But the political fallout in Punjab of these recent developments has been beyond expectations. The SAD has not only shifted the electoral focus away from developmental issues but ventured back to its long-abandoned Sikh identity politics.

Since 1995, the SAD has in principle followed the Moga Declaration, which espoused the cause of Punjab, Punjabi, and Punjabiyat. By doing so, it distanced itself from the Sikh identity, which had been on its agenda since the Anandpur Resolutions of 1973 and 1978. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution demanded that the Central government cede control of Punjab to a Sikh government and also stated that it wished to reclaim some territory given to other Indian States. The demands made in the resolution became the central tenet of the Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s for an independent state called Khalistan. The SAD did not fully participate in the militant movement, though.

In the Moga Declaration, the SAD delineated a general shift in policy to cooperative federalism with the Indian state and an agenda to make Punjab an inclusive society and polity and not just a Sikh state, with emphasis on reconstruction. This was hailed by many political analysts. One of the reasons for this policy shift was the SADs inability to get a majority in the State Assembly.

Says Professor Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University: The SAD could never win on its own with the Sikh agenda. Its ideology alienated Hindus, who form 44 per cent of the population of Punjab. [The Sikhs comprise 54 per cent of the population.] As such, the alliance with the BJP is not just beneficial for the SAD but also necessary, as they complement each others vote bank. This has helped them to come to power several times. Earlier, it was the Jan Sangh-SAD combine.

Therefore, the recent protests in Punjab against the candidatures of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, another accused in the riots case, should not be seen as a mere outburst of Sikh sentiment. A paradigm shift in Punjab politics leading to greater polarisation appears to be in progress. The agitations were mainly organised by the SAD or by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), or by some fringe Sikh groups.

The SGPC has over the years ceded much of its control to the SAD. So, it can be safely said that the SAD planned the agitations well and chose the eve of the elections to stage them. The question is not whether the SAD has politicised an emotive issue. The reason for the partys readoption of Sikh identity becomes clear as one travels in the constituencies of Punjab.

It is harvest season in the Malwa belt, which consists of mostly rural areas such as Bhatinda, Ferozepur, Patiala and Sangrur. Farmers and agricultural workers this correspondent spoke to openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the SAD-BJP government. They complained of an increase in the cost of inputs, poor power and water supply and the absence of a good market price for the wheat crop. Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal has been advocating the establishment of more special economic zones (SEZs), the construction of highways and the development of real estate and has shown little concern for rural issues in a largely agrarian State economy. This has alienated from the SAD the rural population, which his father Prakash Singh Badal had cultivated over the years.

While the State government blamed the Centre (the Food Corporation of India did not lift Punjabs wheat last year), the farmers said the State government was indifferent to their plight. Moreover, in a feudal society such as Punjab, respect shown to senior leaders count. Many of them are unhappy with Sukhbir Badals autocratic ways (the Students Organisation of India founded by him allegedly resorted to large-scale violence during the panchayat elections last year). Although Prakash Singh Badal has attempted damage control many a time, the Badal family is apparently wary of dissenting party members.

Badals concern is not misplaced as many top leaders have migrated to the Congress in recent times. Prominent among them are Manjit Singh Calcutta, Rajbir Singh Padiala and Paramjit Singh Sarna. Further, events such as the death of State Cooperation Minister Captain Kanwaljit Singh on March 28 in an accident and his son Jasjit Singh Bunnys dissension and his subsequent homecoming have had a severe impact on the party. Bunny openly revolted against the party and even intended to contest the election from Patiala as an independent. But the Badal family managed to persuade him to return to the partys fold. His candidature would have made the victory of Preneet Kaur, the Congress candidate and Captain Amarinder Singhs wife, that much more easy, as he would have cut into SAD votes.

Although Bunny has relented, political observers feel that in view of his disgruntled behaviour, most of the votes commanded by his father in Patiala and Anandpur Sahib would now go to the Congress.

Although the BJP expressed its displeasure at Sukhbir Badals governance a number of times, it has little choice in the State considering its declining presence. It is in this context that the SADs electoral campaign must be viewed. The shift to identity politics is perhaps the only way out for the ruling party to battle the anti-incumbency sentiment. The party knows the political risk in this, but if anything goes wrong, it can be corrected in time for the Assembly elections.

The new political trend was visible when, immediately after he was sworn in on January 21, Sukhbir Badal announced that the SAD would continue to fight for the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The statement was, however, withdrawn by the Chief Minister. In a similar incident, the SGPC, which runs all Sikh religious institutions in Punjab and is referred to as the Sikh parliament, filed an affidavit in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in January defining a Sikh. The partys silence over this issue was, perhaps, an indication that it was trying to bring the discussion of a Sikh religious and political identity into the public domain.

Meanwhile, the Congress, which was on the back foot trying to defend Tytler and Sajjan Kumars candidatures and the clean chit given to Tytler by the CBI, has gained some ground following their withdrawal from contest. Throughout the controversy, the State Congress was deeply divided over the issue, with some leaders, including Bir Devinder Singh, even resigning from the partys membership. Since then the party has adopted a defensive stand by reinforcing the image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Patiala royal Amarinder Singh, who is back in the reckoning after his list of candidates was preferred over Pradesh Congress Committee president Mohinder Singh Kay Pees, told Frontline, The CBI clean chit to Tytler does not mean that the Supreme Court should accept it. Even in the Nithari killings case, the Supreme Court rejected the CBI report on Moninder Singh Pandher. But the SAD must explain why it raises the issue only during the time of elections. The SAD was a constituent of the ruling coalition at the Centre when Tytler was first given a clean chit in 1999. The former Chief Minister was sidelined after the partys defeat in the last Assembly elections and his subsequent expulsion from the Assembly on corruption charges.

Prakash Singh Badal, however, said: The real issue is not the withdrawal of the ticket but exemplary punishment to the guilty. If this decision [to withdraw the ticket] indeed shows the Congress concern for Sikh sentiments, may one ask why the ticket was given to the guilty in the first place? Besides, they were not only allotted the Congress ticket continuously since 1984 but even rewarded with plum portfolios in the Union Cabinet. Is anyone in the Congress apologising for that?

The Congress could benefit from the anti-incumbency sentiment, but it is sharply divided between the factions led by Amarinder Singh and the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal. Their rivalry runs deep and was a troublesome factor when the party was in power.

In the last Assembly elections, the Dera Sacha Sauda had ordered its 40 lakh followers to vote for the Congress in view of the SAD-led violence against its followers. As a result, the SAD was almost decimated in Malwa, despite winning in other parts of Punjab. The party has adopted a softer stance on the Dera and has distanced itself from the Sikh groups demanding the execution of the sect chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Both the SAD and the Congress have been seeking the Babas audience these days.

DELHI Edge for Congress By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

SUDDENLY the aam aadmi has gained prominence in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in the shy-of-slums Delhi. The main contenders the Congress and the BJP are vying with each other to address the issues concerning the population living in jhuggi-jhopri clusters, underdeveloped colonies and the suburbs. Top leaders make it a point to visit the slums every day and make promises of food security and regular water and power supply to houses there. Such measures ahead of the elections are common in States where provision of basic amenities is an issue. Delhis progress and development are generally measured by mega projects such as Metro Rail, air-conditioned buses, flyovers, Commonwealth Games and introduction of compressed natural gas in the public transport system and not basic issues, despite the ever-increasing migrant population.

The credit should go to the Congress for identifying the issues early. Sheila Dikshits government in the National Capital Region made an effort to address systematically the housing and drinking water problems of these colonies, where more than 50 per cent of Delhis population lives. It was primarily for these reasons that the Congress registered an emphatic victory in the elections to the Delhi Assembly in December 2008.

Having failed to win the Assembly elections on the development plank, the Delhi BJP unit is once again trying to project itself as better equipped to handle the common mans problems.

Its president O.P. Kohli said: Despite the claims of the government that price rise has been curbed, prices are increasing every day. The government claims that inflation has declined to 0.26 per cent; yet according to government data, the prices of food items have gone up by 17 per cent. Foodgrains have become costlier by 9.61 per cent, pulses by 8.46 per cent, fruits by 8.02 per cent and milk by 6.22 per cent. Even the price of salt has increased by 11 per cent. We would tell people of Delhi to vote against such a government.

The BJPs attitude has changed. It is no longer relying on the middle-class voters, traders and shopkeepers (a large chunk of this section voted for the Congress in the Assembly elections). The Congress, which has been ruling Delhi for the past 15 years, has managed to create a substantial base among almost all the classes and communities owing to its strong organisational presence.

Another trend reflected in Delhi is that local issues, more aptly bread-and-butter issues, have gained importance over national issues. L.K. Advanis strong leadership qualities and terrorism find mention in the BJPs campaign, but soon the twitter is about basic issues. Except in a certain section of educated middle class, issues such as terrorism and leadership of the country seem to have become non-issues in Delhi.

Delhis demographic structure in terms of class and caste and community composition explains this trend. The population in rural areas, slums and lesser developed colonies have become a lot denser than in the posh and middle-class areas. Almost 60 per cent of Delhis population consists of members of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Scheduled Caste (S.C.), Poorvanchalis (migrants from Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh) and Gujjars. In the 2004 parliamentary elections to the seven Delhi seats, the Congress was elected in six where this section is predominant. The party lost the posh South Delhi constituency to BJPs Vijay Kumar Malhotra. The BJP is now trying to win the votes of the underprivileged lot.

Muslims and Jats together make up around 22 per cent of the population. The Congress enjoys their support too. By denying former Chief Minister Sahib Singh Vermas son Parvesh Verma the ticket for the West Delhi constituency, the BJP seems to have lost the Jat votes too, though it succeeded in preventing Parvesh from leaving the party.

Punjabis, Sikhs and government employees form the other categories of Delhis population. Their voting preference is evenly divided between the two parties. The BJP knows that it cannot get the Muslim and Jat votes in bulk. So the only option left is to address seriously the economic problems of the majority of the population, an area ignored by the party all these years.

The BSP, the only party other than the Congress with considerable influence in this section, is emerging as a significant player in Delhi politics. Continuing with its social engineering model, the BSP has fielded three Muslims, two Brahmins, one Gujjar and one S.C. candidate. Although the party got around 14 per cent of the votes in the Assembly elections, political experts say that its weak organisational presence is a handicap in large constituencies.

The delimitation process has upset the political equations and is responsible for the kind of campaigning that Delhi has been witnessing. While earlier, Chandni Chowk was the smallest constituency with 3.4 lakh voters and Outer Delhi was the largest, with 38 lakh voters, the biggest constituency post-delimitation is North-West Delhi with 17.90 lakh voters and the smallest is New Delhi with 13 lakh voters. Such was the change that even the sitting MPs of the Congress, who were once again chosen to contest, had difficulty in deciding the constituency. For instance, 92 per cent of the new South Delhi constituency comprises parts of the erstwhile rural Outer Delhi and the richer areas have become a part of the New Delhi constituency. Although the number of seats after the delimitation has remained the same, the constituencies have been altered considerably.

While the Congress has the advantage of known faces contesting the elections and a virtual absence of anti-incumbency sentiment, the Sikh agitations, which resulted in withdrawal of the candidatures of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar from North-East Delhi and South Delhi, could affect the party a little. The issue not only brought back the memories of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to the fore among a large chunk of voters but also put away two leaders who had a considerable mass base.

Delhi Congress president J.P. Agarwal said: Both these leaders have won many elections and as true Congressmen would support and campaign for the party in true spirit. Both of them have been getting Sikh votes for so many years. The Congress high command has taken care to keep the two leaders in the loop so that they can continue to extend their support to the campaign.

As nominations started on April 11, three constituencies geared up to throw some interesting battles and possibilities. In the West Delhi constituency, the Congress decided to field a Poorvanchali candidate and three-time MLA Mahabal Mishra to take on four-time MLA Jagdish Mukhi of the BJP. About 45 per cent of the constituencys population is made up of Punjabi Hindus, Sikhs and other urban voters, who are expected to vote for Mukhi, a Punjabi himself. Mishra could throw a surprise if he manages to get the Jat votes. Mishra is expected to get the Brahmin, S.C., OBC and Poorvanchali votes. The nomination of Mishra has helped the Congress in other parts of Delhi as it has managed to appease the Poorvanchalis.

Chandni Chowk has unpredictable prospects. Kapil Sibal of the Congress is contesting against Vijendra Gupta, Chairman of the standing committee of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. A large chunk of people have complained about Kapil Sibal neglecting the constituency. The candidature of a Lok Janshakti Party MLA, Shoaib Iqbal, who could cut into the Muslim votes, is compounding Sibals problem.

In the North-East Delhi constituency, the BJP candidate B.L. Sharma Prem, 80, is widely known to be a hard-core Hindutva ideologue and Rashtriya Swayamsewak member. Sharma was away from active politics for 12 years and was working in a Hindutva propaganda magazine in Haridwar when he was recalled by the BJP. He has been openly talking about his Akhand Bharat vision of a united India which would include Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh. His unique campaign methods, such as holding drawing-room discussions, have made him popular in the area and in the media.

While the Congress enjoys an edge, the changed strategy of the BJP could throw up some surprises.

JAMMU & KASHMIR New equations By Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar

ELECTIONS to the six parliamentary constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir have come close on the heels of the State Assembly elections in December 2008. However, the campaign that is on is devoid of the enthusiasm witnessed in the Assembly elections.

The State goes to the polls in all the five phases, beginning on April 16. Six seats may not be a significant number, but given the coalition phenomenon in the country even a single seat matters. Union Minister Saifuddin Sozs one seat brought down the A.B. Vajpayee government in 1998.

New political equations determine the nature of the contests this time. The National Conference (N.C.) and the Congress, which joined hands after the Assembly elections to form a government, have divided between them the seats on the basis of their prospects in the Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh regions. While the Congress is contesting from Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh, the N.C. took Baramulla, Srinagar and Anantnag in the Kashmir valley.

It will be a triangular contest among the Congress, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, and the BJP in the Jammu region, whereas the N.C. and the PDP will fight it out in the Kashmir valley. The Congress will have a tough contest in the largely Buddhist-dominated Ladakh constituency against the Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF), which has once again fielded its sitting MP, Thupstan Chhewang.

The Congress fortunes in Ladakh will depend upon the candidate it will nominate as also the support of the N.C. cadre from Kargil district, which is Muslim-dominated. Analysts point out that the Ladakh region has the tendency to get divided on communal lines. It remains to be seen to what extent the N.C. will be able to shift its votes in favour of the Congress with which it had a stiff contest in the Assembly elections. The BJP, which put up a remarkable performance in the Assembly elections and took its tally from one to 11, has fielded Leela Karan Sharma, who spearheaded the Amarnath land agitation, in Jammu.

The Congress has fielded sitting MPs Madan Lal Sharma for the Jammu seat and Lal Singh for the Udhampur seat. Jammu is crucial for both the Congress and the BJP to ensure that the support base they gained in the Assembly elections is intact.

The PDP, which did well in the Muslim-dominated areas of Rajouri and Poonch (which form part of the Jammu parliamentary constituency) in the Assembly elections, has fielded former Rajya Sabha member Trilok Singh Bajwa; it is eyeing the N.Cs Muslim votes in the region. In Udhampur, the Congress has reasons to feel secure as most of the Assembly seats in the constituency are in its kitty. The N.C. enjoys good support in the region. Moreover, former Congress Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azads home district, Doda, is part of Udhampur and this should help it have an edge over the PDP. But there is a possibility that the PDP may be in a position to woo the Muslim voters away in the absence of an N.C. candidate. The candidates of the Congress and the BJP in Udhampur, Lal Singh and Nirmal Singh respectively, had lost the Assembly elections.

In the Kashmir valley too, the new alignments make the outcome uncertain. The N.C.-Congress alliance poses a challenge to the PDP. And with Peoples Conference chairman Sajjad Gani Lone deciding to fight the elections from the Baramulla constituency, the dynamics have changed further.

In south Kashmirs PDP bastion of Anantnag, the alliance has fielded a relatively weak candidate, Mehboob Beg, who was defeated by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in the Anantnag Assembly constituency. He was recently nominated for the Legislative Council. The PDP has fielded former Minister Peer Muhammad Hussain in the Anantnag parliamentary constituency. N.C. insiders admit that it is difficult to take on the PDP in south Kashmir.

In central Kashmirs Srinagar constituency, the PDP has fielded the influential Shia spiritual leader Moulvi Iftikhar Ansari. This led to a rethinking in the N.C. camp, which asked its president Farooq Abdullah himself to contest. Former Chief Secretary Sheikh Ghulam Rasools name also figured in the list, but many N.C. leaders voiced their opposition to it and asked the leadership to take Ansaris candidature seriously. Following party pressure, the senior Abdullah announced that he may contest himself, adding that Srinagar Mayor Salman Sagar would also file his nomination from Srinagar and that the final decision would be taken ahead of the last date for withdrawal of nominations.

The PDP is banking on the sizable Shia vote in central Kashmir. Farooq Abdullah, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha, is not keen to go to the Lok Sabha. It is certainly important for the N.C. to win Srinagar, which has been represented by the Abdullah dynasty for decades, said Tahir Mohiuddin, Editor of the Urdu weekly Chattan. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was elected to the Lok Sabha from Srinagar in 1998 and 2004.

Similarly, north Kashmirs Baramulla constituency, with 15 Assembly segments, is throwing up an interesting contest this time following Sajjad Lones entry. The PDP has considerably improved its tally as well as vote share in north Kashmir. It won five Assembly seats in 2008 and finished second in at least five other Assembly segments. With Congress support, the N.C. candidate, Shariefuddin Shariq, may be able to get a handsome share of votes.

In Kupwara, where the N.C. bagged four out of the five Assembly seats, Sajjad Lone also wields considerable influence as it was his father Abdul Gani Lones bastion. Sajjads entry may bring down the N.C. vote share. The PDP has fielded Dillawar Mir, a former Minister.

But all depends upon the voter turnout. The United Jehad Council, an amalgam of militant organisations, has called for a boycott of the elections, and a hardline faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, headed by Syed Ali Geelani, is vociferously supporting the call. For this and other reasons, unlike in the Assembly elections, the voter turnout may drop.

RAJASTHAN Surprises galore By T.K. Rajalakshmi in Jaipur and Dausa

THE 25 Lok Sabha constituencies in Rajasthan, which go to the polls on May 7, will be more or less equally shared by the ruling Congress and the BJP. But a few surprises cannot be ruled out that is, independents or non-BJP and non-Congress candidates getting elected. The constituencies to watch out for are Jalore, Sikar, Bharatpur, Bikaner and Kota; even Jhalawar-Baran, from where Dushyant Singh, son of former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, is contesting could provide an interesting result.

One thing is clear: the Congress is not going to perform as well as the BJP did in the 2004 elections when it won 21 seats. In the December 2008 Assembly elections, the Congress won only 96 of the 200 seats and could not muster a simple majority on its own even though it emerged the single largest party.

The stability of the States Congress government was recently put to the test when Kirori Lal Meena, a Minister in the former BJP government and now an independent legislator, prevailed upon his wife, Golma Devi, who was elected from the Mahwa Assembly constituency, to quit the State Cabinet. His action was over the distribution of the ticket in eastern Rajasthan, which is considered a fiefdom of the Meena leader.

I alone can influence the outcome in 13 constituencies. I am concerned about the performance of the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections. I do not want the State government to fall but I wont stand being humiliated, he told Frontline. Certain statements by Namo Narayan Meena, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, made the situation worse.

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, sensing an imminent withdrawal of support by as many as four legislators, all supposedly followers of K.L. Meena, roped in all the six BSP MLAs, who promptly quit their party to join the Congress. The legislators said they were unhappy with the way the BSP leadership had distributed the ticket for the Lok Sabha elections and alleged that money had changed hands in the distribution of the ticket for the Assembly elections as well. The coup by the Congress, which left the BSP bereft of any representation in the Assembly, could impact the prospects of the BSP candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, especially in eastern Rajasthan.

In another surprising development, Kirori Singh Bainsla, the architect of the 2007-08 Gujjar agitation which claimed around 70 lives, joined the BJP. While some quarters in the Gujjar leadership, especially the All India Gujjar Mahasabha, have been critical of his decision, others feel it was not an unexpected move. One of the first things he said after joining the BJP was that he would get the Governors assent for the Reservation Bill. Bainsla is expected to contest from the general seat, Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, where he will face Namo Narayan Meena of the Congress.

The move is meant to pacify Gujjars, who hope that Bainsla will take the communitys demand for Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) status forward. It also conveys the impression that the BJP is ready to make amends to the Gujjar community by nominating one of their own to a prestigious seat. In the December elections, the BJP fared well in eastern Rajasthan, the hotbed of the Gujjar agitation.

The BJP has renominated most of its sitting MPs. The old faces include Manvendra Singh from Barmer, whose father Jaswant Singh, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, has decided to contest from the Darjeeling parliamentary constituency with the help of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha.

The party has also fielded newcomers in some seats. For instance, the candidates for Bharatpur and Banswara are relatively new to electoral politics but are experienced Sangh activists. Ghanshyam Tiwari, former Education Minister and the BJP legislator from Sanganer, is to contest from Jaipur.

Senior BJP leaders including State party president Om Prakash Mathur have been saying that there is a need for social engineering given the new situation after delimitation. The BJP has not been able to keep dissent at bay either.

The Congress is in a position of relative advantage, being in power and having secured a fractionally higher vote percentage as compared with the BJP in the Assembly elections. Gehlot, on his part, feels very much in charge since most of his detractors within the party lost in the Assembly elections. For instance, had former Pradesh Congress chief Narayan Singh not lost out to Amra Ram of the CPI(M) in the Assembly elections, he would have been the obvious choice for the Congress in Sikar. As Amra Ram is very much in the fray here, the Congress had to look for another candidate. A triangular contest is likely here between three-time BJP MP Subhash Maharia, Amra Ram and the Congress nominee.

Congress loyalist Raghuveer Meena is contesting from Udaipur, which has been declared a reserved (S.T.) constituency. The chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Girija Vyas, is the Congress candidate in Chittorgarh. In Ajmer, Sachin Pilot of the Congress faces Kiran Maheshwari, president of the BJPs Mahila Morcha. Kiran Maheshwari hopes to cash in on the Vaish or Bania population. At Jhalawar-Baran, Dushyant Singh may have an edge over the Congress nominee, Urmila Jain, wife of Public Works Minister Pramod Jain who trounced the BJP stalwart Raghuveer Singh Kaushal in the Assembly elections.

In the absence of a third front in the State, the outcome may not be different from that of the 14th Lok Sabha elections. The BSP would have had a chance in Bharatpur had the exodus of party MLAs not taken place.

The CPI(M) has fielded its three MLAs in Sikar, Ganganagar and Bikaner. The candidate from Bikaner, Pawan Duggal, represents Anoopgarh in the Assembly. Duggal had won with a handsome margin of 25,000 votes in the Assembly round. The CPI is contesting from two seats, Chittorgarh and Udaipur Rural. Unlike the dominant parties in the State and some others who are trying to get a foothold on the basis of social engineering, the Left parties do not bother about caste calculations. In fact, the CPI(M) managed to win the three Assembly seats, for the first time, on the basis of the movements and struggles it had organised.

There is growing voter disenchantment with the mainstream political parties, as is evident from their declining vote shares. There seems to be an undercurrent of anger towards them among the numerically weaker and dispersed castes. In 2008, as many as 25 candidates were elected to the Rajasthan Assembly either as independents or as representatives of non-Congress and non-BJP fronts. In the 2003 Assembly elections, nearly 19 such candidates were elected. What is interesting is that even though the Congress won this time, its vote share was only marginally higher than what it was when the party lost to the BJP in 2003.

One of the major factors that helped the Congress form a government in the State was its victory in the reserved seats. In southern Rajasthan, including Udaipur, it had regained the S.T. and S.C. seats. The BJP was able to sweep the 2003 Assembly elections and the 2004 Lok Sabha polls partly because of the aggressive campaign by the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, a tribal outfit. BJP rule from 2003 to 2008 was characterised by a spate of clashes between tribal people and the minorities.

Despite the absence of a cogent third front here, it will be an interesting battle as no party is taking victory for granted. Even before the electoral lists were declared, Gehlot had launched his campaign blitzkrieg. Being in power has its advantages, but whether they will translate into a decisive mandate in favour of the Congress will need to be seen.

MADHYA PRADESH Muslim factor By Purnima S. Tripathi in Indore, Khandwa and Khargone

THE BJP and the Congress are engaged in a direct contest in the 16 constituencies that go to the polls on April 30 in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress even appears to have a slight edge this time in this region, unlike in the November 2008 Assembly elections, following the consolidation of Muslim votes. (The first phase of elections in the State for 13 seats is on April 23.) The fear of the BJP coming to power at the Centre or simply Advani phobia is the driving the Muslims to rally around the Congress.

In the Assembly elections, the Muslim vote got divided. Some people voted for the BSP, some did not vote at all and some took paltry amounts and kept away deliberately. This cost the Congress many seats, says Ishrat Ali, the Shahr Qazi of Indore, who wields a lot of influence in the region.

The Congress was defeated with very slim margins in several constituencies. The voter turnout, which had never been below 60 per cent in previous Assembly elections, was as low as 25-30 per cent in some constituencies.

It is not because of any great love for the party. The Congress has betrayed us, it has not stood by us. It has done nothing substantial for us. It did not provide even the minimum safety when Bajrang Dal goons were committing atrocities, killing innocent Muslims, during the past five years of the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government. But there is no alternative and we are forced to vote once again for the Congress. We dont even have the option of not voting this time because this will ensure a walkover for the BJP, says Riyaz Hussain, a former Congress MLA from Khandwa and an active party worker.

Ahmad Patel, a Congress councillor and Pradesh Congress Committee delegate from Khandwa, who is also the city Congress vice-president, agrees that Muslims are forced to vote for the Congress because of the possibility of an Advani-led government at the Centre. The consolidation of Muslim votes, political observers say, will help the Congress improve its tally, that is, if the organisation shows an interest in involving responsible members of the community in the campaign. But the organisation is absolutely disinterested. It has taken our votes for granted and does not even bother to ask for our votes. The Congress is the biggest anti-Muslim party, but we are helpless as there is no alternative, says Salim Khan, a former Congress leader in Khandwa.

One thing is clear. We have to vote in order to defeat the BJP. If there is no other candidate, I have told my people to vote for the Congress, despite all our grouses against the party, says Syed Ansar Ali, the Shahr Qazi of Khandwa.

Eighty per cent of the States Muslim population is concentrated in the Indore division, which includes Khandwa. Muslims constitute 8 per cent of the [States] population and can influence the results in 103 Assembly seats, which means roughly 10 Lok Sabha seats. Since their vote got split because of the communitys disenchantment with the Congress, the BJP was able to return to power in the State, says Ishrat Ali.

The Indore Lok Sabha seat, which was held by the Congress until 1989, shows how the BJP gained because of the division of Muslim votes. The constituency has over 1.8 lakh Muslim voters. In 1989, during Barawafat, 26 Muslims and one Hindu were killed in a riot. Bala Beg, an independent candidate for the seat, got 89,000 Muslim votes in the elections that year. Sumitra Mahajan of the BJP, a first-time winner, defeated Prakash Chandra Sethi of the Congress, who was then a Union Minister. Since then she has been winning from Indore. This time, the Congress has fielded a novice, Satyanarayan Patel, against Sumitra Mahajan. His chances of winning are slim. The BSP has fielded Abdul Rahim Khan, who will only end up cutting into the Congress votes, once again making the BJPs victory easy.

Muslims were in two minds on whom to vote but not any more. Advani has changed all that, says Ibrahim Qureshi, former Chairman of the Madhya Pradesh Minority Commission and at present chairman of the MP Muslim Education Society. If the Congress is in a position to improve its tally in the State, the person to thank is Advani. In the 2004 elections, the BJP won 25 of the 29 seats with 48.13 per cent of the votes. The Congress won four seats with a vote share of 34.07 per cent.

Significantly enough, the BJP has realised that polarisation of the electorate along Hindu-Muslim lines will eventually benefit the party. Hence, there seems to be a concerted effort by Sangh Parivar affiliates such as the Bajrang Dal to create trouble in the area. In the past three months alone, there were 11 attempts to trigger a communal disturbance in Khandwa. The efforts of the elders in the Muslim community, especially religious leaders such as the Shahr Qazi, helped defeat them. On March 10, the remains of a pig was thrown into the Khadagpura mosque compound ahead of the Barawaft procession. On March 11, a dead pig was thrown into another mosque.

A sense of fear is palpable in Khandwa. People avoid venturing out after sunset. The atmosphere is vitiated, says Imtiaz, a young fashion designer who runs a boutique and also teaches fashion designing at an institute. He used to hang out with friends until late in the night but not any more. Interestingly, the BJP does not deny this. A little bit of tension is always there, especially during festivals and elections. It is nothing uncommon, says Sunil Jain, the BJPs media in-charge. He says unabashedly: Here only the HM [Hindu-Muslim] factor works in the elections.

It is the same story in neighbouring Khargone, Dhar, Ujjain, Dewas, Mandsaur and Ratlam. How the Congress will be able to capitalise on this situation is to be seen. Neutral observers say that if the Congress tries sincerely, it can win many seats in the region because some of its candidates are good.

Adding to the BJPs worry is the resentment of the people displaced by the Omkareshwar, Indira Sagar and Sardar Sarovar projects across the Narmada. Even Sumitra Mahajan concedes that this could affect the BJPs prospects to some extent.

Also going to the polls on April 30 are the seats in the Gwalior division, which is considered a Congress stronghold because of the influence of the Scindia family. The party is likely to win at least four seats here. However, overall, the BJP appears far ahead because of the performance record of the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government. Even staunch BJP opponents are unable to wish this factor away.

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