Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

THE situation on the ground in Haryana favours a vote for change. Indications are that the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party may find it difficult to retain the Lok Sabha seats won in 1999. The INLD and the BJP, which fought the 1999 Lok Sabha elections in alliance, won all the 10 seats, each winning five. There is palpable anger against the two parties in the towns and areas dominated by the Jat community, their traditional strongholds.

Nowhere is this more evident as in Ghillod Kallan village in Rohtak constituency. It is common for women of the village to make more than a dozen trips to the village well for water. Tap water is unheard of in this village. A few kilometres away, in the village of Jassia, the situation is dismal. The hand-pumps set up on the village main road splutter out water infected with toxins. These hand pumps have led to a drastic decline in the water table of the village.

The election manifestos of the major political parties promise safe drinking water. Said Jaswanti of Ghillod Kallan: "We know that this is the time to make promises. The problem of drinking water will not be solved by any political party. All they want is to stay in power."

The village of Ladwa is 148 km from Delhi. Sugarcane is one of the major crops grown here. More than half a dozen families in the village have been plunged into financial crisis because of the fall in the price of sugarcane. Said Ramesh Kumar, a sugarcane farmer: "I sold my produce to private mills at the low price of Rs.83 a quintal. The cooperative sugar mills are not at all helpful. They fail to protect us from private owners who quote low prices. The cooperatives refuse to transport the crop. How can a poor farmer like me pay for transportation? I have no other option but to sell my produce to private owners." Ask him about the approaching Lok Sabha elections and Ramesh says that though he will vote against the sitting MP, he does not expect the next one to improve the situation.

Basmati rice shops abound on the highway, which connects the village of Ramgarh with Ladwa. The traders in these shops complain how the Value Added Tax (VAT) - in effect since April 2003 - has destroyed their business. Customers who used to flock to Haryana to buy Basmati now prefer adjoining Punjab. Before VAT, a quintal of Basmati in Haryana cost Rs.200 less than that sold in Punjab. Now the sale price is more than that in Punjab. The traders in the State are thinking of floating a political party to lobby for the removal of VAT.

In towns such as Panipat and Karnal it is inadvisable to travel after sunset. Recently, when Congress(I) leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda quoted statistics to back his charge of a worsening law and order situation in the State, nobody rose to counter his claims. Said Hooda: "Contrary to [Chief Minister Om Prakash] Chautala's claim, the law and order situation in the State has deteriorated. The number of crimes reported increased from 33,081 in 1995 to 38,782 in 2000 and to 40,169 in 2002." Day-time robberies are common and have made cities as unsafe as the countryside, which is notorious for violent feuds.

One of the main reasons for the anger against Chautala has been his dictatorial style of functioning. The INLD has moved towards increasing the centralisation of power. Within the INLD, there is no democratic functioning, and voices of dissent are nipped in the bud as control of the party has increasingly moved into the hands of Chautala and his son Ajay Singh Chautala. Charges of corruption against INLD leaders have affected the party's image among the people.

The BJP's position is unenviable. Its four-and-half-year-old alliance with the INLD has meant that the BJP behaved neither like a ruling party nor as an effective Opposition. By itself the party has never had much influence in Haryana. Now, with the alliance with the INLD having come to an end, party workers are finding themselves fighting a losing battle. Said a BJP worker: "L.K. Advani and Sushma Swaraj never really wanted to work with the INLD. When a section of party workers said that the elections could be won independently on the `feel good' factor, they were too ready to believe them. We are not feeling too good about this change."

The BJP is aware that without an alliance with one of the regional parties it stands little chance of winning even one of its five seats. Earlier, in desperation, it made overtures to its former ally Bansi Lal, former Chief Minister and president of the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP). The two parties contested the 1998 Lok Sabha elections together but could win only one seat each. The BJP subsequently moved closer to Chautala. However, Bansi Lal, said to be angry with the BJP for its betrayal in the past, is not keen on bailing the BJP out of the political mess. He has said that his target is the next Assembly and not the Lok Sabha.

The INLD and the BJP are bitter enemies now. Chautala reacted sharply to Advani urging the electorate to vote for a single party rather than regional parties. He wrote letters to leaders of all major regional parties asking them to "beware the sinister designs of the BJP in general and Advani in particular". Chautala is also blaming the BJP for increasing the price of diesel and other agricultural inputs.

Political observes believe that if the Congress(I) fields the right candidates, it will gain from the anti-incumbency factor. The situation gets more complicated given the fact that no prominent Congress(I) leader wants to spoil his or her chances of becoming Chief Minister by standing for the Lok Sabha elections. Assembly polls are due in a year's time and leaders such as Bhajan Lal and Bhupinder Hooda would like to stake their claim to chief ministership. Said a party functionary: "The situation is such that they will bow to the party high command if it decides to field them. Yet many of the candidates would be too happy to forsake the ticket for the present elections in favour of the Assembly polls." It is clear that even if factionalism does not affect the party in the Lok Sabha polls, it will affect it in the Assembly elections.

Naunidhi Kaur

FOR most people in Punjab, the sole uncertainty about the election outcome is just how badly the Congress (I) will do.

Battered by a large-scale revolt of MLAs allied to former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh seems to have little control over his party apparatus. Everything from the nomination of former Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill for a Rajya Sabha seat to the return of the Chief Minister's Information Adviser, B.I.S. Chahal, have become causes for contention within the party; on top of it all, corruption scandals have broken out over State government jobs and recent auctions of liquor retail outlets.

Yet, many of the problems faced by the Congress(I) exist within the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party as well. Although former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has made his peace with his archenemy, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the two factions remain at odds on the ground. SAD cadre are also irked at efforts by Badal's son, Sukhbir Badal, to run the campaign. Sukhbir Badal's choice of youth leader Charanjit Singh Dhillon as the party candidate from Ludhiana, for example, has attracted allegations that the seat has been gifted to the Congress(I). The Congress(I) might be in big trouble - but it is still unclear if that will actually turn into a debacle.

SAD leaders are hoping that southern Punjab will be the firm base on which their assault on the Lok Sabha will be founded. During the last Assembly elections, southern Punjab voters saved the SAD from a certain wipe out. Now, with the SAD hoping to sweep Punjab, the region has again acquired enormous significance. It is here the Congress(I) hopes to carry out a rearguard action, using its anti-corruption campaign against Badal to effect. While the Congress(I) has yet to finalise candidates, south Punjab heavyweight Jagmeet Singh Brar could prove a formidable campaigner for the party in both Faridkot and Ferozepur. The third key south Punjab seat, Bhatinda, has been given to the Congress(I) ally, the Communist Party of India.

Dalit votes could be central to the outcome of the contest in the prosperous Doaba region. Jalandhar, for one, has seen enormous caste tension in recent months, after riots broke out between Dalits and the landed Jat community for control of a shrine in the village of Talhan. Although a truce was brokered between the warring communities, traditional Congress (I) voters in the Dalit community were incensed by the State government's failure to back them. Former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's son, Naresh Gujral, is standing as the BJP candidate from this constituency - but some observers believe his own caste status could be an obstacle to harnessing Dalit residents to the SAD-BJP's cause.

It is clear, though, that the Congress(I)'s failure to put together an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will cost it a substantial number of votes. In 1999, BJP candidate Vinod Khanna won the Gurdaspur seat by just 3,000-odd votes, a victory brought about in no small part by the BSP taking 67,000 votes, which may otherwise have gone to the Congress(I). Although the BSP's Punjab unit has been riven by factionalism - State leader Satnam Kainth has merged his faction back with the party, but discontent continues to simmer - it nonetheless remains a magnet for a large number of Dalit voters. While Amarinder Singh had hoped to build a counter constituency among landed farmers - great effort was made to ensure trouble-free procurement of crops - there is little sign of large-scale Jat desertion of the SAD so far.

In some seats, inner-party issues, rather than wider caste and class alignments, could prove crucial. Patiala, for one, will witness a particularly interesting campaign, which will see elements of each major party pitted against their own. Parneet Kaur, Amarinder Singh's wife, will be fighting to retain her seat in the contest against former State Finance Minister and SAD leader Kanwaljit Singh. Her problems will, of course, include discontent among traditional Congress(I) supporters in urban areas and Dalits - but also the influence of Bhattal among rural voters in the Lehra Gagga area. Cadre loyal to Bhattal, Parneet Kaur's campaign managers worry, will do little to help the official candidate.

Ironically enough, Kanwaljit Singh has a similar problem. Between December 1998, when the Badal and Tohra factions of the SAD split, and 2003, when they patched up, Kanwaljit Singh was among Tohra's most bitter opponents. Now, both factions have patched up on paper. On ground, though, many block level workers allied to Tohra have been less than happy about conceding their positions to the official SAD, and their cooperation with Kanwaljit Singh's campaign is less than certain. Tohra loyalist Prem Singh Chandumajra, who raised the banner of revolt after being denied the Patiala seat, has made his peace with the SAD - but not, local politicians say, with Kanwaljit Singh's nomination.

Similarly, in Sangrur, SAD candidate Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa will face opposition from sitting MP and Akali maverick Simranjit Singh Mann, from the Congress(I) - and from elements of his own party. Dhindsa is a long-time opponent of SAD heavyweight and former Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala. While Barnala has ostensibly stayed out of local politics since his appointment as Governor, his wife Surjit Kaur Barnala has announced her opposition to Dhindsa's candidature. Many within the Congress(I) feel this mosaic of infighting would have given Bhattal a good chance of taking the seat, but the dissident leader has rejected proposals that she stand, seeing them as an effort to evict her from State politics.

In Patiala - as elsewhere - the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections could make or break State-level political futures. Many observers believe major Congress(I) reverses could accelerate calls for Amarinder Singh's head - unless, that is, the party faces all-India humiliation. "Amarinder Singh's best bet," notes one senior Congress(I) politician, "is that the party does badly elsewhere. That way, no one will be able to point fingers at anyone."

Praveen Swami

THE Bharatiya Janata Party, which won all sevens seats from Delhi in the last elections was first to declare its list of candidates. The Congress(I), which did not win a single seat in the last two Lok Sabha elections in Delhi, is yet to announce its list. Polling for the seven parliamentary constituencies in the National Capital Territory of Delhi has been scheduled for the final phase, on May 10. While the BJP hopes to build its campaign around the achievements of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, the Congress(I) hopes to capitalise on the popularity of the Sheila Dixit government, which won the 2002 Assembly elections comfortably.

The BJP has re-nominated six of its seven Members of Parliament. Vijay Goel, the Union Minister of State for Sports and Youth Affairs and Member of Parliament from Chandni Chowk, is contesting from Sadar, which Madan Lal Khurana vacated when he was appointed Governor of Rajasthan. The Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee president criticised Goel's decision with the taunt that it showed that the BJP no longer considered Chandni Chowk a safe seat. Goel was quick to respond: "Who is the Congress to tell me about which constituency to stand from, when they have not even finalised their candidates. I was born and brought up in Sadar constituency. In fact, my political career started in Sadar when I defeated Jagdish Tytler, a three-time member."

But it is clear that the large Muslim population and Goel's narrow margin of victory (1,995 votes) in Chandini Chowk in the last elections has prompted this move. Says Dr. Harsh Vardhan, president of the BJP's Delhi unit: "We were clear about six candidates. Chandni Chowk is a constituency with a delicate balance - it is small and the victory margins are also small." The results in Chandni Chowk could also depend on the performance of the Janata Dal (Secular) candidate, Shoaib Iqbal, who has a strong vote base in this area.

The Congress(I)'s chances depend largely on its choice of candidates. Party workers hope that the leadership has learnt form its past mistakes. The Congress(I) has lost three times in a row in the Outer Delhi and New Delhi constituencies, five times in a row in the East Delhi constituency and six times in South Delhi. Although any win for the Congress(I) will be an improvement, the party hopes to maximise its gains. In order to do this it needs to field the right caste combinations, especially in Outer Delhi and East Delhi, which are the largest constituencies, and have increasing migrant populations.

The Congress(I) was quick to criticise the plans of Union Minister for Tourism Jagmohan, the BJP's candidate from New Delhi, to relocate jhuggi-jhopri clusters in the Yamuna Pushta area as a part of his plans to beautify the river. Chief Minister Sheila Dixit opposed the plans saying it would affect the right to vote of those being relocated. Says Dixit: "I have written to the Election Commission saying that I fail to understand the urgency of beautifying a place at the cost of affecting the right to vote of citizens living in the area. When the Election Commission had already given a directive saying that people should not be relocated till the elections are over, why cannot the government wait for some more time? When Jagmohan has not done anything for five to six years, why should he be in such a hurry now?"

Despite its dismal showing in the Assembly elections (it won only 20 out of 70 seats), the BJP has started targeting the performance of the Delhi government. Says Dr. Harsh Vardhan: "The Delhi government is planning to impose property tax on the Unit Area method. It has hiked electricity and water tariffs. The government has given the Sonia Vihar Treatment Plant to the French company Degremont on a maintain-and-operate basis for almost 10 years. The Sheila Dixit government's policies are very consumer-unfriendly."

Although the Congress(I) is banking on the popularity of its government to improve its tally, Delhi's history shows that the results of Lok Sabha elections could be different from those of the Assembly polls. Says Dr. Harsh Vardhan: "Look at the 1998 elections, we won only 15 seats in the State legislature but in the Lok Sabha elections, held six months later, we won all the seven seats." A statistic the Congress(I) is unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Siddharth Narrain

THE electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh in April-May remains as enigmatic as ever, with a four-cornered contest becoming almost a certainty now. In deciding the post-poll balance of power at the Centre, advantage has often rested with the party that wins the largest number of seats in the State, which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. (U.P. had 85 seats before the separation of Uttaranchal.)

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati's decision not to align with the Congress(I) must have brought some relief to the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the event of a BSP-Congress(I) pact, the S.P. was in danger of losing its substantial Muslim support and the BJP its upper-caste support.

The results of the Lok Sabha elections are likely to be more or less on the same lines as those of the 2002 Assembly elections and the 1999 parliamentary elections. The S.P. emerged in 2002 as the largest party by winning 143 of the 403 Assembly seats and a 25.37 per cent vote share, followed by the BSP with 98 seats and 23.06 per cent of the vote share and the BJP with 88 seats and 20.08 per cent of the vote. The Congress(I) was a poor fourth with 25 seats and an 8.96 per cent vote share.

In 1999, the BJP had bagged the largest number of Lok Sabha seats, 29, followed closely by the S.P. with 26 seats. The two parties secured 27.64 per cent and 24.86 per cent of the votes respectively. The BSP won 14 seats and 22.08 per cent of the votes. The Congress(I) had fallen by the wayside with only 10 seats and 14.72 per cent of the votes. This time round, the BJP's performance is expected to register a significant change with the return of former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh to its fold. In the 2002 elections, the Rashtriya Kranti Dal (RKD), which Kalyan Singh formed after breaking away from the BJP, actively campaigned to inflict substantial damage to the BJP's chances. It is another matter though that the RKD could not win many seats. During the Lok Sabha elections, although Kalyan Singh was with the BJP he actually sabotaged its prospects from within owing to differences with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Now that Kalyan Singh is prepared to lend wholehearted support, the mood in the BJP is upbeat. Deputy Prime Minister L.K Advani's Bharat Uday Yatra is adding to the overall optimism. It is a matter of record that whenever Advani has undertaken a yatra he has attracted new voters to the BJP.

Besides having been fielded from Bulandshahar, Kalyan Singh is also in charge of the BJP's campaign committee. "We should cross the 50 plus mark provided we choose the right candidates. Vajpayee's personality, the NDA government's achievements and our programmes should see us through because the Opposition has no leader, no agenda and no programme," Kalyan Singh told Frontline in Lucknow, sifting through the list of ticket aspirants. According to him, the BJP's task has been made easier by the poor performance of the Mulayam Singh government. "The crime graph has gone up in Uttar Pradesh and the people feel insecure," he said. Besides, sugarcane farmers were unhappy because their dues were still pending and there was no improvement in the employment sector.

He vowed to expose the failures of the Mulayam government and he said, "The State is run by five capitalists who make policies in their own favour."

As for the Congress(I), it remains painfully stuck in the quagmire that it has been in for several years. Moreover, the party's hopes of improving its prospects by entering into an alliance with the BSP have been dashed. But despite Mayawati's tongue-lashing and clear announcement that the BSP would contest all the seats in the State on its own, the party still hopes that some sort of an understanding would come about. "Have they announced their seats? Have they declared their candidates yet?" party spokesman Kapil Sibal asked in New Delhi, a day after Mayawati blasted the Congress(I) at her pardafaash rally (expose rally) in Lucknow on March 13.

The only cause for optimism in the Congress(I) is the survey it conducted in February which showed an increase in its vote share since the last Assembly elections. It is pegged at over 15 per cent now because of a positive swing in the Muslim votes. Congressmen also feel that in a four-cornered contest, the importance of Uttar Pradesh in the overall picture would be reduced proportionately. "All the four parties would have their respective share of seats, and thus the importance of the State would go down," party general secretary Oscar Fernandes said. Yet the Congress(I)'s prospects certainly appear dim. In the last Assembly elections, 334 of the 402 candidates it fielded lost their deposits. In the Lok Sabha elections, 47 of the 76 candidates it fielded suffered such humiliation.

The S.P. hopes to reap the benefits of the incumbency factor. It is banking on the fact that it is still too early for the anti-incumbency factor to set in. Besides, Mulayam Singh thinks that the initiatives his government has taken will see his vote share go up. "The sugarcane dues have been paid off to a large extent. The farmers are getting adequate power now. Besides, the Reliance power project and Sahara's housing project will create avenues for employment. These and other initiatives, such as making education for girls free up to the intermediate level and providing free hospital beds, taken in the interest of the common people have been appreciated by people," Mulayam Singh said.

He is also hopeful that the S.P.'s alliance with Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal will help increase its vote and seat share. "The Samajwadi Party will win not less than 50 seats, although our target is 60. We will decide who forms the government in Delhi," he said, hoping to play king-maker.

The BSP, with its 22 per cent vote share, remains as confident as ever. Mayawati had adopted the simple yet electorally effective strategy of putting up a relatively larger number of upper-caste Hindus and Muslims. This has yielded rich dividends for the BSP so far. She hopes to become the balancing factor, irrespective of which party emerges as the single largest block. She is also nursing prime ministerial ambitions. "If people like Gujral, who have no grassroots support, can become Prime Minister, why can't the leader of Dalits, who has such massive support, become one?" she asked at the Lucknow rally, making no secret of her intentions.

In Uttar Pradesh, the vote of Muslims would prove decisive in at least 36 constituencies where their strength varies from 40 to 45 per cent, the maximum being in Rampur where they form a substantial 52 per cent of the voters. In constituencies such as Saharanpur, Amroha, Moradabad, Bijnore, Meerut, Muzzaffarnagar, Deoria and Behraich Muslims constitute a substantial 40-45 per cent of the votes, a sizable number that can tilt the balance in any party's favour. It is this realisation that is forcing the BJP too to woo Muslims.

Without exaggeration, Uttar Pradesh does seem to hold the key to power. The battle promises to be exciting, with high-profile candidates like Vajpayee, Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Congress(I) supremo Sonia Gandhi contesting from the State.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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