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Acid test for BJP

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

As the Assembly elections approach, the Bharatiya Janata Party faces heavy odds.

UTTAR PRADESH Chief Minister Rajnath Singh worships Goddess Durga. He would visit the Vindhyavaasini temple in Vindhyachal, Mirzapur before embarking on any important task. Wherever he goes campaigning, he first visits the local devi temple. Indeed, in this round of elections, Rajnath Singh may well need all the blessings he can gather. He is up against heavy odds, the anti-incumbency factor being the biggest stumbling block.

His job of delivering U.P. to the Bharatiya Janata Party has been made tougher by the loss of the magic wand that he was hoping to wield: issuing appointment letters to some 50,000 unemployed youth under the "quota within quota" scheme. Rajnath Singh promised to ensure personally that the letters were distributed before the February elections. Although the Supreme Court had issued an interim injunction in December on recruitments under the scheme and asked the State government to file a reply within a month, the recruitment process continued. On January 21 the court stayed all such recruitments until the petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the scheme were disposed.

Although with the court ruling the one issue on which the BJP was banking on the most to sway voters has been lost, the Chief Minister is bent on making it an important poll plank. He declared that even if he had to pay Rs.1 crore he would hire the best lawyers to challenge the ruling so that the benefits of reservation reached the most backward classes (MBCs). In fact, the court ruling has come as a reprieve for the BJP-led coalition government which otherwise was in no position to offer so many jobs simply because there were no vacancies.

For Rajnath Singh, the coming elections to the 403-member Assembly are going to prove an acid test. They will either make or break his political career. His woes, largely inherited from the inert Ram Prakash Gupta government over a year ago, have been compounded by the compulsions of coalition politics, which came into full play when the election process began. The haggling over seats by the allies, who put forth exaggerated demands, only made matters worse for the BJP and delayed the final announcement with regard to the nominees. After much hard bargaining, the allies finally agreed to let the BJP contest 318 seats as against the 325 it had initially announced. The break-up of the seats allotted to the BJP's allies are: Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal 37, Sharad Yadav's Janata Dal (United) 13, the Samata Party and the Lok Janshakti eight each, Maneka Gandhi's Shakti Dal six, the Loktantrik Congress and the Lok Parivartan Party four each, the Kisan Mazdoor Bahujan Party two and independents three.

Dissatisfaction over the seat-sharing arrangement was visible at the offices of the allies, increasing the possibility of friendly contests in a situation where every single seat will count. The Lok Janshakti, which had sought 41 seats, has decided to contest 21 seats, fielding at least six candidates against the BJP. The RLD will be locked in a friendly contest with the BJP in the Khekra constituency, from where Ajit Singh has refused to withdraw his candidate. Maneka Gandhi has also rejected the seat-sharing formula. She announced the names of 14 candidates as against an allotted number of six. Further, two Ministers - Bihari Lal Arya belonging to the Loktantrik Congress and Sukhpal Pandey of the Lok Janshakti - resigned on January 22 over the distribution of the ticket. They have been fielded by the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) respectively.

The BJP, which denied the ticket to 41 sitting Members of Legislative Assembly, including three Ministers (Arvind Jain, Ram Sonkar and Hari Narain), also faces the rebel menace. All of them have vowed to defeat the official candidates. The extent of resentment within the BJP can be gauged from the fact that angry supporters of the MLAs who were denied the ticket stormed the party office in Lucknow and indulged in hooliganism before they were removed by the lathi-wielding policemen. If this resentment gets converted into negative votes at the polling booths, the BJP may suffer a reverse.

With regard to issues too, the BJP faces an uphill task. It cannot trumpet its achievements because there are virtually none. The first three years of BJP rule under Kalyan Singh and then under Ram Prakash Gupta were marked by chaos, and development was the casualty. Rajnath Singh did stop the BJP's downslide. Yet he had too little time to achieve much. Rajnath Singh's spree of announcements since assuming power earned him the nickname 'Ghoshnanath' Singh.

The fact that most of these announcements, including those relating to improved pay scales for teachers and tax exemptions for traders, have not been implemented will only go against him. Already his effort to woo the backward classes has backfired. However, the issue of reservations for the MBCs has become a major poll issue as is obvious from the fact that all major parties have given this section of the population a major share of the ticket: the Bahujan Samaj Party has allotted 126 seats, the BJP 125, and the S.P. over 100. (S.P. chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has promised to raise the quota for backward classes to 54 per cent if his party is voted to power.)

In a bid to hold on to its core base, the BJP is clinging to its time-tested upper caste vote bank comprising Brahmins and Thakurs, not making any changes in their representation. These two castes have been given the maximum share of seats - Thakurs 65 and Brahmins 59, as they constitute a decisive component in over 130 constituencies. The S.P. and the BSP too are wooing them assiduously.

The BJP was banking on terrorism and the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) to emerge as major poll issues, but it appears that these have little appeal for voters in the remote areas of the State who have to grapple with other problems that affect their daily life. So the issues that are likely to dominate the election would include development (or the lack of it), the law and order situation, problems faced by farmers and the criminalisation of politics. The S.P., the BSP and the Congress have made them their main poll plank. While the S.P. is promising free education and free medicare along with cheaper food, clothing and shelter, the BSP is promising an efficient and effective government. The Congress is talking about allround development with its slogan "Vikaas ya vinaash" (development or destruction). The party has also issued a 14-point charge-sheet against the government, detailing its failure on all important counts, including development.

Ayodhya too is likely to emerge as a major issue, what with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad holding its "chetawani yatra" relating to the construction of the Ram temple. Although there could be a minor consolidation of diehard Hindutva votaries on this, the average Hindu voter is not likely to be influenced. For the temple plank stands exposed as a political gimmick. Thus, while the BJP stands to gain only marginally from the Ayodhya issue, its rivals could benefit by the consolidation of minority votes.

Of all the four major parties in the fray, it is the BJP that has the most at stake. The outcome of the elections in Uttar Pradesh could have far-reaching consequences for the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. The S.P., the BSP and the Congress, on the other hand, are comparatively better placed as they do not have to contend with the pulls and pressures of alliance politics. The Congress and the BSP are going it alone. The S.P. is in alliance with the Left parties, which have a presence in certain pockets, and there are no ideological clashes between them. Besides, the BJP's misrule has given these parties enough ammunition to go full blast.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh has been firmly restrained by the Supreme Court from making any appointments under the new 'quota within quota' policy, which provided separate reservation to the most backward classes (MBCs) among the other backward classes (OBCs) and Dalits. The hastily drafted policy, announced on the basis of the recommendations of a Social Justice Committee, was obviously aimed at gaining political mileage ahead of elections by cutting into the support base of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

The committee, which completed a marathon caste census for the purpose in a record two months' time, made a blatantly political suggestion that the OBCs be divided into three categories: Schedule A, B and C. Schedule A included Yadavs and Ahirs for whom the quantum of reservation was limited to 5 per cent. Schedule B comprised of eight groups, including the politically and financially strong Kurmis, Jats, Lodhas and Gujjars. For this category, ironically called the MBCs, the quantum of reservation prescribed was 9 per cent. Schedule C, categorised as extremely backward, consisting of 70 groups, including 22 backward ones in the Muslim community. The quantum of reservation prescribed for the category was 14 per cent. The overall quantum of reservation for OBCs was increased to 28 per cent from 27 as per the recommendations.

Dalits were categorised into two: Schedule A comprising Jatavs and Chamars for whom 10 per cent reservation, out of the total 21 per cent, was prescribed. The rest of the 65 Dalit castes were categorised under Schedule B and given 11 per cent reservation. This was aimed to wean the non-Jatav Dalits away from the BSP. The State government issued an ordinance in September last and replaced it with an Act in October. Recruitment procedures began on a war footing soon afterwards. Over 20,000 selections had been made under the new policy. The Chief Minister often stated that he intended to recruit up to 50,000 youths under the new policy before the elections.

The three-Judge Bench comprising Chief Justice S.P. Bharucha and Justices Shivraj V. Patil and B.P. Singh ruled that "the entire exercise seems to be done in a hurry". It rejected the government's contention, presented by Attorney-General Soli J. Sorabjee, that the recruitments be allowed subject to the final judgment of the court. The Judges said their order was very clear that no more appointments be made until all petitions challenging the policy had been disposed of. The new reservation policy was challenged by former BJP Minister Ashok Yadav, questioning the constitutional validity of the policy.

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