ALTHOUGH leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to put a brave face on the stampede at a sari distribution function, which led to the loss of 22 lives in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's constituency, Lucknow, on April 12, there is a growing feeling among party leaders that the tragedy struck at an inopportune time. Coming just three days before Vajpayee was to file his nomination papers and only a week before the first round of polling begins, many of them fear that it is a bad omen. Senior leaders, who only a week before boasted that the party would win a minimum of 45 seats, are apprehensive of talking even about 30 now.
Senior leaders are baffled by the glaring dichotomy between the party's "feel good" and "India Shining" campaign slogans and the stark reality of thousands of poor women braving the cruel April heat for a free sari worth Rs.40-50 at the most, and ultimately 21 of them paying for it with their lives.
More than the lapses on the part of the local administration, or even the violation of the model code of conduct, for BJP leaders the issue at stake is the harsh face of poverty that revealed itself and exposed the hollowness of their "feel good" claims. A senior BJP leader who accompanied Vajpayee as he went to file his nomination papers said: "It certainly is a bad omen but we can only keep our fingers crossed." Having placed all its bets on one individual, the negative fallout of the stampede could send all calculations awry. Party general secretary and Union Minister Rajnath Singh told Frontline: "Our entire optimism is based on Atalji's charisma. Nothing can dent that, not even this incident. This incident will not affect the outcome of the elections."
Despite the bravado, worry is writ large on the faces of BJP leaders. In private they admit that it was an avoidable accident, that BJP leader in the U.P. Assembly Lalji Tandon should have refrained from the distribution of largesse to mark his birthday after elections had been announced. The small park in the Mahanagar locality of Lucknow, where the function was held, could hardly accommodate 20,000 women. Once the chief guest, Lalji Tandon, left the venue, pandemonium prevailed as the organisers started flinging sari packets at the women who, after waiting patiently in the scorching heat for hours, rushed to grab them. Even the local administration cannot escape its share of the blame; a letter that had been sent informing the administration of the programme reached the police chowki concerned hours after the stampede occurred.
Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav promptly ordered a Divisional Commissioner-level inquiry and announced Rs.1 lakh for the family of each of those killed, but refused to comment on the incident saying that he did not want to politicise the matter. Questions have been raised by other parties as to why no BJP leader had been named in the first information report, especially since the venue was adorned with BJP flags and many BJP leaders, including Tandon, were present on the dais.
As one travels across Uttar Pradesh, it is becoming increasingly clear that the sheen on Vajpayee's persona has started wearing thin. And no matter what the BJP says, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin is a "non-issue", with a large section of the people seeing it as a "creation of the media". The entry of Rahul Gandhi into electoral politics has changed people's attitude towards the Congress(I). Although there will not be any dramatic improvement in the Congress(I)'s performance in this round of elections, the amount of goodwill for the party seen now had never before been evident in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era. "Rahul's entry has certainly created a positive feeling among the youth. It has reminded people of the short span of Rajiv Gandhi's rule, during which a vision of 21st century India evolved, the vision that is now the basis of all which the BJP quotes for its India Shining campaign," says Sanjay Asthana in Varanasi, eastern Uttar Pradesh. Asthana, who runs the Benaras Institute of Media Studies and makes awareness programmes for a local TV channel, says that at least in eastern U.P., voting will be on real issues, not on the Atal versus Sonia debate. Lack of power and water, bad roads, the plight of weavers in areas that used to be famous for the Benarasi saris - these will decide the outcome of the elections, he says.
Another significant trend visible in many parts of U.P. is the change in the attitude of Muslims towards the Congress(I). Since Rajiv Gandhi's death, Muslims had never come out openly in support of the Congress(I). But as this correspondent followed the Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka cavalcade to Amethi, Rae Bareli and back to Lucknow on April 5 and 6, it was evident that Muslims had shed much of their antipathy towards the party. In Gauriganj and Jais kasbas, falling in the Amethi constituency, Muslims with rose petals and flowers in their hands waited by the roadside for hours to welcome the three. Students and teachers of Madrassa Tayal Uloom Qadasia in Gauriganj organised a tumultuous welcome. In Varanasi, where Muslims hold the balance, there is a visible shift towards the Congress(I). Ateek Ansari, general secretary of the Powerloom Weavers Association, said: "Over 90 per cent of Muslims are in favour of the Congress(I) because they are disappointed with the Samajwadi Party for which they voted in the last three elections." He said that the Samajwadi Party had failed to give any relief to the ailing Benarasi sari industry on which over 20 lakh Muslims were dependent for their livelihood.
Another striking factor that is evident across the State is that the usual caste-party affiliation is likely to be at work and in the case of Muslims there will be tactical voting in favour of the candidate best placed to defeat the BJP. Despite her repeated dalliance with the BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati has not lost her Muslim support base. This was because "Muslims still consider her a lesser evil than the BJP," confided a senior Muslim leader in Lucknow. As for Sonia's foreign origins, it has never been an issue for Muslims. "None whatsoever. They have never had any objection to Sonia. In the last few years she has met Muslims of all hues from across India and if there were any doubts those have been removed. They are impressed with her sincerity," said Jafaryab Jilani, convener of the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee. Jilani said, "Muslims will certainly look positively at the Congress(I) wherever its candidates are in the race."