In a cleft stick

Print edition : January 19, 2002

As the elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly approach, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I) find the going equally tough.

WEEKS after the Election Commission announced the dates for elections to the 403-member Uttar Pradesh Assembly, on February 14, 18 and 21, the two main parties in the fray, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), are still struggling with their respective lists of candidates. The Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have meanwhile taken the lead by releasing their respective lists without any hassle. The S.P. was the first to announce the names of 295 candidates, leaving the remaining 108 names to be declared after a seat-sharing agreement is finalised with its People's Front allies - the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The BSP, which is contesting all the seats on its own, has released the list for 400 constituencies. Of the remaining three, party vice-president Mayawati is expected to contest from two.

Chief Minister Rajnath Singh at a Muslim Jagran Sammelan in Varanasi.-AKHILESH KUMAR

The BJP, which is hoping to return to power, is facing problems, both with its coalition partners and within itself. A clear sign of trouble emerged after the sudden and unexplained postponement of the party's State election committee meeting which was scheduled to be held on January 7 and 8 to finalise the list of candidates. After the committee finalises the list the central election committee has to approve it. According to senior leaders, the delay stems from the conflicting demands made by the BJP's seven allies - the Samata Party, the Janata Dal (United), the Kisan Mazdoor Bahujan Party, the Lok Janshakti, the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) of Ajit Singh and the Shakti Dal, Maneka Gandhi's newly floated party. While the BJP has already expressed its intention to contest in 325 seats, the allies' demands far exceed the number of seats that remain, and hence the tussle and the delay. According to informed sources, the RLD has staked its claims to 60 seats, mostly in western Uttar Pradesh, while the Shakti Dal has expressed its desire to contest 50 seats, mostly in the Terai region. Similarly, Sharad Yadav's Janata Dal (U) and Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti have demanded 25 seats each. As if all this was not enough, the RLD announced that as it had an alliance only with the BJP and not with its other allies, it will also contest from the constituencies where the BJP had not fielded any candidate. This will complicate matters for the BJP-led alliance as it will cause a division of votes.

In order to keep Ajit Singh in good humour, the BJP has ruled out an electoral alliance with its other ally, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) led by Om Prakash Chautala, in Uttar Pradesh. The INLD has announced that it will contest 35 to 40 seats in the Jat-dominated western region to strengthen the unity of Jats in western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. This will compound the BJP's woes by causing a split in the Jat vote. Besides, the INLD, like the RLD, supports the demand for a separate Harit Pradesh to be carved out from the western Uttar Pradesh districts. The BJP is opposed to the creation of such a State.

Within the BJP, the tussle between State party president Kalraj Mishra and Chief Minister Rajnath Singh has intensified, resulting in a scramble for the ticket for their respective candidates. The Kalraj and Rajnath factions are accusing each other of promoting candidates belonging to their respective denominations - Brahmins and Thakurs. Besides, Kalraj Mishra favours the sitting members while Rajnath Singh wants the ticket to be given mostly to young leaders and those with a clean record, and only to those Members of the Legislative Assembly who have delivered on their promises. The Rajnath Singh formula would remove more than 50 per cent of the sitting BJP MLAs from the race. Such a situation could breed resentment and give rise to the possibility of rebel candidates entering the fray, party leaders say.

Ticket distribution is not the only problem confronting the BJP. It is on the horns of a dilemma with regard to the issues to be highlighted in the run-up to the polls. While there is no dispute over the issues of terrorism and the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) figuring prominently on its agenda, it remains to be seen how it will handle the Ram Janmabhoomi issue. While the BJP itself would not like to raise the issue, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been maintaining that the temple issue is a national one and that there is nothing wrong in raising it during election campaigns. During the 2000 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP contested on the basis of a manifesto that was common with its allies and did not mention the Ram temple issue. But the February Assembly elections will see the BJP's allies advocating separate manifestoes, their stand on some issues being even contradictory. So there will be no excuse for the BJP this time to ignore the temple issue. The reactions of its allies, who are openly opposed to the Hindutva brigade's stand on the temple issue, and the repercussions of their stand on the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre, are bound to put the BJP in a quandary.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is already proceeding with a mobilisation programme relating to its temple construction plans, has announced a yatra by religious figures. They will reach Ayodhya on January 20 and Delhi on January 26, where a demonstration in front of Parliament House, will demand that the Centre remove all obstacles in the way of the temple construction.

Added to this, Rajnath Singh's much-hyped "quota within quota" scheme, which was being described as the magic wand to attract votes, has also backfired on the BJP. To the embarrassment of the party leadership, the Supreme Court has stayed the implementation of this scheme, acting on a petition filed by former BJP Minister Ashok Yadav who challenged its constitutional validity.

IF the BJP is caught in a cleft stick between its allies and the issues it could advocate, the Congress (I) too appears to be groping in the dark about the issues it would raise and the candidate it would project as its chief ministerial nominee. Although the party is in an upbeat mood, its optimism appears to be misplaced. According to independent observers, the Congress(I) can at best hope to repeat its performance in the last Lok Sabha elections when it won 10 seats. On that basis, the party can win over 50 seats, which, although an improvement over its performance in the 1996 Assembly elections, is way off the majority mark. Besides, there is a dearth of suitable leaders whom the party can project as its chief ministerial candidate. Veteran leaders like N.D. Tiwari and Mohsina Kidwai, who have had a fairly long innings in State politics, are in the wrong age bracket to be projected so.

State Congress(I) president S.P. Jaisawal stands out for his lack-lustre performance: the party has lost every byelection it contested under his presidentship. State Legislature Party leader Pramod Tiwari, known for playing hardball, can hardly be expected to fit the bill. Hence the party finds itself in the uneasy situation of facing the voter with a blank face. Congress bigwigs, including the Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Chief Ministers, Digvijay Singh, Sheila Dixit, Ajit Jogi and Ashok Gehlot respectively, have been roped in to lead the campaign along with senior party leaders such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Motilal Vora and Mohsina Kidwai, but they are hardly expected to create any waves for the party.

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.-

There is speculation about Priyanka Gandhi Vadra campaigning. Even if she campaigns, her sphere of influence will be limited to the area in and around Amethi, as was evident in the last Lok Sabha elections. The only leader who is expected to pull in the crowds for the Congress is its president Sonia Gandhi. She will address more than 25 public meetings during her whirlwind tour of the State. But the absence of a well-known face from the State to lead the campaign may cost the party dear.

The Congress(I) is also struggling with its list of candidates. Apparently there are not enough numbers representing all parts of the State. The party intends to contest all the 403 seats on its own, and has a mighty task ahead to finalise the list. The list was expected to be announced after the notification was issued on January 16. In the 1996 Assembly elections, the Congress contested in 126 seats, leaving the rest to the BSP, which was its ally then. In areas where the party did not contest, its support base at the grassroots level has got weakened considerably.

AS for issues, the Congress(I) is banking on its long but successful struggle against terrorism, holding forth Punjab as an example. The names of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi will be invoked to drive home the point that the party has paid a huge price to fight terrorism, a point that the BJP will find it hard to counter. Another plank for the Congress(I) would be development. The slogan would be vikaas ya vinaash (development or destruction). But the party is finding itself handicapped in the matter of the lack of clarity with regard to its relations with the S.P. While the State unit is projecting itself as being equally opposed to both communalism and casteism, as symbolised by the BJP and the S.P. respectively in their opinion, the recent proximity of Sonia Gandhi with S.P. leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh has created confusion in the minds of party workers. According to some senior leaders, at best the party would emerge as a balancing force, and hence it will not target the S.P. directly. Instead, the focus would be on terrorism, communalism and threats to national security. This, they say, would leave it with enough leeway to handle a tie-up with the S.P. in case of a hung Assembly verdict. But this ambiguity in its stand vis-a-vis the S.P. could confuse its voters, creating a situation of advantage for the BJP.

The S.P. gives the impression of leading a cohesive People's Front. Yet it has its share of worries. Its biggest worry is resentment within the party in the wake of ticket distribution. Voices of dissent are already heard with the Member of Parliament from Barabanki, Ramsagar Rawat protesting against the allotment of the ticket in Barabanki district solely on the recommendation of Beni Prasad Verma, a former Union Minister and the MP from the neighbouring Kaiserganj constituency. Although Mulayam Singh dismissed the rumblings as a "non issue", it can hamper the party's prospects. In fact, Rawat is the fourth MP to speak out against the high command. Already two MPs, Umakant Yadav and Balchandra Yadav, who rebelled against Mulayam Singh's style of functioning, have been expelled from the party and have since joined the Janata Dal (U). A third MP, Balram Singh Yadav, is sulking. He had openly campaigned for his son, who had contested the Assembly byelection in 2001 as a BJP candidate. A revolt by yet another MP could well upset Mulayam Singh's applecart.

The other problem Mulayam Singh faces is divergence within the People's Front. The CPI and the CPI(M) are upset that he announced the list without consulting them. The constituencies for which Mulayam Singh has announced his candidates include those the Left parties wish to contest. However, Mulayam Singh denied differences among the Front constituents. Sounding confident, he said that the seat-sharing formula would be arrived at amicably in "due course".

As for issues, the People's Front has no dearth of them. These include communalism, corruption, mafia raj, criminalisation of politics and threats to national security. Although its manifesto is yet to be released, the workers have already been given the talking points. The Front is promising voters free education and free medical treatment and cheaper roti, kapada aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter).

The BSP is the only party which does not seem to have had any trouble with its list. The list appears to be based on a meticulously worked-out formula of social engineering, giving an indication that the party hopes to reach out to all sections of people instead of confining itself to the Dalit-Backward-Muslim vote. This is the reason for the allotment of 91 seats to candidates belonging to the upper castes. Surprisingly, the largest chunk has gone to the backward castes, 126 in all, which includes a substantial number of people from the most backward castes too. Dalits have been given 97 seats and Muslims in 86.

One issue that is bothering all the parties alike is the mismanagement of the distribution of voter identity cards. While the Election Commission has announced that the cards would be compulsory for voters, the political parties maintain that only 40 per cent of the electorate has been given these cards. They are demanding that the cards be not made compulsory this time. The Election Commission has clarified that even if the clause is scrapped, some form of identification would be demanded of voters in order to prevent fake voting.

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