Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

"IF the rest of India is feeling good, Chhattisgarh is feeling better," claims Brij Mohan Agarwal, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader and State Home Minister. He has every reason to feel confident, as his party is likely to retain the majority of 11 seats in the State in the Lok Sabha elections.

In the last parliamentary elections, when the region was still part of Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won eight seats. With the recent Assembly election victory, the morale of the BJP seems to be high. A demoralised and internally riven Congress(I) does not seem equipped to challenge the BJP.

However, the post-Assembly election situation in the State has radically changed with the suspension of former Congress(I) Chief Minister Ajit Jogi from the party. Jogi was blamed for the setback the party suffered in the areas dominated by tribal people. The party managed to capture a mere eight out of 34 seats in the region, previously a Congress(I) stronghold. Moreover, it lost all 20 seats in the Naxalite-affected areas to the BJP.

Now, with Jogi's exit, the Congress(I) is hopeful of regaining lost ground. "There has been a drastic change in the ground situation," says Congress(I) leader S.C. Shukla, now that Jogi is no longer the face of the party in the State.

Yet it seems unlikely that such a definitive change of preference in the tribal areas could have happened in a matter of a few months. "Jogi or no Jogi, there is no doubt that we have definitely won over the tribal people," says Nand Kumar Sai, a BJP leader who is contesting from Surguja, currently a constituency held by the Congress(I). The shift in the tribal vote in favour of the BJP is attributed to the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. The outfit provides schooling and health services and insidiously creates a support base for the Hindu Right, which the BJP exploits in the elections.

Besides the fall in tribal votes, what hurt the Congress(I) most in the Assembly polls was the presence of former party leader V.C. Shukla's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which walked away with 7.38 per cent of votes, which would otherwise have gone to the party. This time V.C. Shukla has merged ranks with the BJP. But the Congress(I) believes that this move would be unpalatable to his supporters. "They may have been temporarily displeased with the Congress, but they will never vote for the lotus symbol," said S.C. Shukla. The BJP itself is cautious about quantifying the electoral gains owing to V.C. Shukla's entry into its fold. Both Chief Minister Raman Singh and Sai expect the BJP to gain 3 to 4 per cent more votes thanks to V.C. Shukla.

A significant development in the Assembly elections was that the Congress(I) made inroads into urban areas like Bilaspur, a change that is attributed to the economic growth and industrial progress achieved during the three years of Jogi's administration. This time, the Congress(I) has fielded promising candidates like Dr. Basant Pahare from Bilaspur and the backward-caste MLA Bhupesh Baghel from Durg. While the NCP has virtually disintegrated with V.C. Shukla's exit, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which secured 4.4 per cent of the votes polled in the Assembly election, can tilt the balance in Dalit-dominated areas like Sarangarh.

Meanwhile, the absence of Jogi from the Congress(I) campaign has created a power vacuum, which might undercut the party's chances. "Jogi nahi to Congress nahi," said a party worker. He said that the current leadership, comprising Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress Committee president Motilal Vora, S.C. Shukla and Charandas Mahant, could not mobilise the "frustrated, directionless workers". The three are united by a common antipathy to Jogi, but not sufficiently prepared to lead the party to electoral victory.

"I want to transform the current crowd of Congress workers into a formidable army," says S.C. Shukla. However, in the Assembly elections, the BJP won seven out of eight seats in Shukla's parliamentary constituency of Mahasamund, causing the veteran leader to shift base to Raipur (where he is pitted against Ramesh Bais of the BJP). "When people like Shukla and Vora could not get their own sons elected, how will they keep the Congress afloat?" asked a Congress(I) worker.

In the BJP camp, former Union Minister Dilip Singh Judev, who had been caught on camera accepting money, is not contesting the election but is all set to campaign for the party. When questioned about the propriety of the matter, Aggarwal said: "Politics mein jeet hi moral hain (in politics, winning alone is moral). And anyway, his bold image and his immense popularity among the people shows that they have already rejected the accusation against him."

However, local considerations apart, both the Congress(I) and the BJP claim that their victory is certain, given the national mood. While Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's roadshow passed through Chhattisgarh on March 20, Advani's yatra is slated for April 10. Chief Minister Raman Singh asserts that this election will be won on the basis of the Central government's support for Chattisgarh's development as seen in the reorganised railway zone and new power projects. S.C. Shukla, on the other hand, says that the Central government's betrayal of the unemployed will create trouble for the BJP and effect a total reversal of fortunes in Chattisgarh. Vora said: "For the first time, farmers have been denied the minimum support price by this irresponsible government. Instead of that `jod-tod ki sarkaar', we present 45 years of development under Congress administration." Either way, the core issues of this election are yet to emerge, as the campaigns have yet to gain momentum.

Amulya Gopalakrishnan

FOR over three years one has repeatedly heard from political analysts in Bihar that the next Lok Sabha polls in the State would be different from previous such exercises. The contention is that since its geographical division on November 15, 2000, for the creation of Jharkhand, several factors that had influenced the election process have moved out literally. These include political outfits such as the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM) and ultra-Left groups such as the Maoist Coordination Committee (MCC), which drew their support largely from the tribal and marginalised communities concentrated in the districts that became part of Jharkhand.

The number of Lok Sabha seats in Bihar also got reduced to 40 from 54 following the geographical division. In the absence of localised forces, it has also been contended that elections 2004 will essentially be a bipolar affair involving the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and a secular front under the leadership of the Laloo Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). While these arguments do reflect sound socio-political logic, it is clear in the run-up to the polls that the political processes relating to elections have not changed dramatically in Bihar. All the political games that have characterised past elections are back in full play.

On the one hand, the problems faced by the secular parties threaten to prevent the formation of a broad anti-NDA alliance. On the other, internal tussles could affect the prospects of the NDA, which has the self-professed objective of improving on its previous tally of 30 seats.

One set of key players in the game of realpolitik has included parties such as the Congress(I), the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Lok Jan Shakthi Party (LJP) led by Ram Vilas Paswan. The LJP was part of the NDA in the last polls but left it proclaiming that "a secular alliance was the only way to save Bihar and India". Basically, it is the demands for seats made by these parties that have prevented the formation of a secular front. Sections of the State Congress(I) have demanded 22 seats, the LJP wants at least 12, the CPI six, the CPI(M) two and the NCP one. The RJD wants to contest a minimum of 30 seats. So cumulatively there is a demand for 73 seats out of a possible 40.

The RJD, the leader of the prospective combine, has branded the demands of other parties as "unrealistic, overambitious claims that have the sole objective of capitalising on our mass base". Laloo Prasad Yadav made one unsuccessful trip to New Delhi to sort out the issues with leaders of the other parties and was getting ready to make one more foray to the capital at the time of writing this report. During his first trip Laloo and other leaders arrived at an agreement granting Bhagalpur to the CPI(M) and Katiahar to NCP leader Tariq Anwar. Indications from the "secular camp" after Laloo Prasad's return are that much headway has been made in the informal negotiations with parties other than the CPI. The CPI, which unilaterally announced its candidates for four seats, has apparently fallen out of favour with the RJD leadership.

An effective, unified secular platform is also threatened by the decision of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) to contest all the seats in Bihar. The S.P. does not have much of a presence in the State but may have enough nuisance value for the RJD. The CPI(Marxist-Leninist), which has a notable presence in a few constituencies, is also fighting on its own against both the NDA and the RJD. The CPI, by all indications, will throw its lot with the S.P. if it is not "accommodated respectfully" in the RJD led front.

The NDA has, after much internal wrangling, finalised the sharing of 38 seats between its two main components in the State, the BJP and the Janata Dal(United). As per the agreement the JD(U) will contest 21 seats and the BJP 17. However, even as the NDA leadership was finalising the arrangement, several influential State-level leaders chose to disassociate themselves from the alliance.

The list includes senior politicians such as Mangani Lal Mandal, Raghunath Jha and Devendra Prasad Yadav. The Selection of candidates has also caused hiccups in the NDA. The BJP's decision to field Susheel Kumar Modi, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, from Bhagalpur has not been taken well by a section of the party. So much so that this section organised a Bhagalpur bandh to protest "the import of an outsider".

The departure of Paswan from the NDA and the resultant loss of Dalit votes from almost all constituencies have created some confusion among senior leaders over the safety quotient of their seats. Even Janata Dal(U) leaders Nitish Kumar and George Fernandes, apparently swayed by the Paswan factor, are finding it difficult to make up their minds about whether to stick to Barh and Nalanda constituencies respectively or move out.

But this confusion does not reflect in the NDA's campaign. The developmental gains made by the NDA under Atal Bihari Vajpayee's leadership, the work done by Union Minister Nitish Kumar in Bihar - the State got a large number of railway projects in the past five years - and the "misrule of the RJD government" form the thrust areas of its campaign. The secular formation's campaign revolves around the "hypocrisy of the India Shining slogan" and "the threat of communal fascism posed by the Sangh Parivar". However, here also a common approach is conspicuous by its absence. The S.P., the CPI and the CPI(M) have also highlighted the misrule of the RJD. Clearly, the RJD has to contend with a `political fatigue' factor too along with other problems.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

"SINCE its formation three years ago, Jharkhand seems to be continuously in competition with its parent State Bihar in perpetuating social and political chaos." This was the observation made by a senior bureaucrat recently. This comment fits the pre-poll political situation in the State too. What you see in Jharkhand is political pandemonium. It is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which holds 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the State.

The BJP is not only facing problems with its partner in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Janata Dal(United), but also has serious internal differences. Two senior leaders, Chief Minister Arjun Munda and former Chief Minister Babulal Marandi, are leading the intra-party tussles, each trying to obtain greater influence and control over the party and thereby get the majority of nominations for his supporters. Caught in the crossfire is External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, who is in charge of the campaign in Jharkhand.

The BJP's current problems with the JD(U) stems from the latter's demand that it be allocated four seats. Apparently, four State Ministers belonging to the JD (U) - Lalchand Mahto, Ramesh Singh Munda, Madhu Singh and Baidayanath Ram Seerms - are eager to try their luck in the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP has refused to concede any seat: Yashwant Sinha even said that "they (JD-U) can fight all the 14 seats and it will make no impact on the BJP". The JD(U) responded by saying that if the BJP did not allot four seats, it would contest all the seats.

On the other side, Opposition parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) have in principle agreed on an alliance. The Congress(I) and the Communist Party of India are also engaged in talks with these two parties in order to reach an electoral understanding. But this process too is caught in claims and counter-claims. The RJD wants to contest 10 seats, the CPI four and the Congress(I) and the JMM six each. Despite these over-reaching demands, the negotiations, according to RJD leader Girinath Singh, are proceeding smoothly. There is a kind of resolve in the Opposition camp to prevent the NDA from repeating its previous performance.

The menace of anti-election violence by ultra-Left forces such the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC) also looms over Jharkhand. Several clashes have taken place in the past one month between the MCC and militant outfits of upper-caste organisations.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

GONE were the awkwardness and edgy nervousness of the previous years. Actually, Orissa Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal president Naveen Patnaik had a spring in his step as he strode up the dais at Saradhabali in Puri to kick-start the electoral campaign of the BJD-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance in February.

After seven years in politics, Patnaik seemed to have discovered himself. The chuckles from a part of the crowd over his ignorance of Oriya died down after he spoke for five minutes in his native tongue about fighting corruption and fulfilling his father's dream of building a prosperous Orissa. Although he read out the speech written in the Roman script, for the first time in his seven-year-long political career Patnaik's confidence did not seem to waver.

The 58-year-old politician seems to be holding well on his own. Although the Assembly elections were due only next year, Patnaik pitched for simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly apparently in the hope that the Vajpayee factor would offset any anti-incumbency wave. The official reason, of course, was that holding two elections in less than a year's time would strain the already precarious financial position of the poor State. Patnaik has proved to be a trusted ally of the BJP at the Centre and has been successful to a great extent in running the coalition government since March 2000. But facing the challenge posed by the Congress(I) under the leadership of former Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik could turn out to be a different ball-game altogether.

The writer-turned-politician, however, claims that he is confident about the BJD-BJP alliance emerging victorious. "J.B. Patnaik is old wine in old bottle. He has no relevance in the present century," he remarked soon after the former Chief Minister was appointed president of the Orissa Pradesh Congress Committee in January. J.B. Patnaik was quick to hit back: "Naveen Patnaik should know that old wine will prove costlier for him."

The electoral battle has hotted up in the 21 Lok Sabha constituencies and 147 Assembly seats. The Congress(I) has decided to field its candidates in almost all the Lok Sabha seats and contest from the majority of the Assembly segments, leaving some constituencies to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Orissa Gana Parishad and others.

In 1999, the Congress(I) won only two (Koraput and Dhenkanal) of the 20 Lok Sabha seats it contested. The BJD had contested 12 seats and won nine, while the BJP won seven of the nine it contested. The seat-sharing arrangement between the BJD and the BJP in respect of the Lok Sabha constituencies remains the same for the current elections.

In the last Assembly elections, the Congress(I) performed poorly - it won only 26 seats. The BJD contested 84 seats and won 63, while the BJP won 38 of the 63 seats it contested. The number of seats the two parties will contest has remained unchanged this time, but they have agreed to exchange a few seats.

The BJD's campaign strategy so far has been to highlight the "clean image" of the Chief Minister and his "crusade" against corruption; the prevalent "feel good" factor; the developmental initiatives that have been taken by the government; and the Congress(I)'s "misrule" in the past.

The BJP is readying itself for an aggressive campaign. Vajpayee's leadership and his government's achievements will be its main planks.

Although hopeful of victory, senior leaders of the alliance are unsure of repeating the previous performance. Although there is no wave in favour of the Congress(I), they are leaving no stone unturned in their effort to secure a majority. The Chief Minister has already chalked out his plans to campaign in all the 147 Assembly constituencies.

Trying to recover lost ground, the Congress(I) is highlighting the "failures" of the Patnaik government and the alleged irregularities in granting mining leases to private companies. The party has announced its plans to bring out a charge-sheet against the alliance government. The Opposition also plans to pin down the coalition over the lack of development in the State and its failure to secure a higher Central assistance and prevent the distress sale of foodgrains in western Orissa during the past four years. But the major accusation against the Chief Minister seems to be his overdependence on a retired bureaucrat.

Both the Congress(I) and the BJD-BJP alliance claim to have taken into account the winning prospects while selecting their nominees. Yet, it appears that rebel candidates from all the three parties might enter the fray.

The PCC chief is now playing the political game with the help of his experience of decades in politics. To supplement his efforts, a number of ousted BJD leaders, who include Rajya Sabha MP and former Union Minister Dilip Ray and former Ministers Nalinikanta Mohanty and Ramakrushna Patnaik, have joined the Congress(I). Ray, an influential politician, was a close aide of Biju Patnaik. He has already campaigned in the BJD chief's constituency, Hinjili, promising to work in the Congress(I) to help realise Biju Patnaik's dream of a prosperous Orissa. The Orissa Gana Parishad led by former Minister Bijay Mohapatra has entered into an alliance with the Congress(I). The OGP president was unable to contest the 2000 Assembly polls because the BJD chief denied him the party ticket at the last minute.

Although the Congress(I) is gaining strength with the entry of several BJD rebels, the coalition appears to be on a strong wicket. The BJD is banking heavily on the reservoir of goodwill that Biju Patnaik enjoys and the untainted image of his Chief Minister son.

Prafulla Das

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