The campaign phase

Print edition : February 21, 1998

With the nominations finalised, the candidates and the campaigners have moved to the constituencies. As the race begins, a look at the ground-level equations in various States.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

The BJP may benefit from a division of the secular votes, but even this may not be enough for it to improve on its performance as compared to 1996.

THE political factors that were at play in Uttar Pradesh in the last three elections - the Assembly elections of 1993 and 1996 and the parliamentary elections of 1996 - continue to dominate the scene this time as well. Of them, the absence of unity among the secular forces opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the polarisation of the electorate along caste and communal lines, are the most important.

The campaign issues that are being debated at the national level - stability, the performance of the United Front Government and the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as the Congress(I)'s star campaigner - are not the dominant themes insofar as U.P. is concerned.

The fact that the secular parties within the U.F. have not finalised an electoral understanding among themselves or with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is certainly advantageous to the BJP. The BJP has left six seats to its allies - the Jantantrik Bahujan Samaj Party (JBSP), which gets four seats, and the Samata Party, which gets two. The BJP did concede four seats to another ally, the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress, but the latter returned the seats to the BJP following internal differences.

In the 1996 parliamentary elections, the absence of an understanding among the secular parties helped the BJP win 52 seats, although it polled only 34.32 per cent of the popular vote. Its two major opponents - the Samajwadi Party(S.P.)-led United Front and the BSP - together polled 45.6 per cent of the vote but won only 18 and six seats respectively. In 34 of the 52 seats that the BJP won, its share of the popular vote was less than the combined vote share of the S.P. and the BSP.

In 1996, the S.P. contested 64 seats, leaving 16 to the Janata Dal and two each to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI. This time, however, disagreement over seat-sharing has led to the Janata Dal and the CPI contesting independently of the S.P. The S.P. is contesting 83 seats after leaving one seat to the CPI(M). (In addition, it is supporting former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar in Ballia.) The Janata Dal is contesting 23 seats and the CPI eight.

The seat-sharing talks collapsed when the S.P. refused to allow the Janata Dal the 16 seats it contested in 1996. The S.P. leadership felt that giving 16 seats to the Janata Dal, which is a mere shadow of its former self, would have undermined the U.F's chances in the State. CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet's efforts to work out a compromise failed. The Janata Dal is not a major influence in most parts of the State and can hope to win only the Khalilabad seat on its own strength, but it can certainly undermine the S.P.'s prospects in a few seats.

The BSP, which is a constituent of the seven-party Jan Morcha led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Prasad Yadav, is contesting all 85 seats, conceding none to its alliance partners. Significantly, as it did in the 1996 elections, the BSP has fielded the largest number of Muslim candidates (14) among all the parties. Observers see this as a move to scuttle the chances of the S.P.

The Congress(I), which has revived a bit of its organisational vigour and mass appeal with Sonia Gandhi's campaign, is contesting 73 seats, leaving nine to the Ajit Singh-led Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party and three to the Muslim Majlis.

While the division of secular votes might help the BJP emerge as the single largest party in the State, its leadership is not sure whether it will be able to improve on its 1996 tally in U.P.

The party had hoped that the appropriation of the stability platform from the Congress(I) and the projection of A.B. Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate would attract voters from different communities, including minority communities. However, reports from different parts of the State indicate that this has not happened. Caste affiliations have remained firm, with Yadavas and a section of Kurmis supporting the S.P., and the Chamar community, one of the Scheduled Castes, backing the BSP. Indications are that Muslims will resort to tactical voting to defeat the BJP.

The BJP is also worried about the intensification of dissident activity in its district units. It expelled two former MPs, Prakash Narain Tripathi and Vishnu Das Shastri, when they filed their nominations as rebel candidates in Banda and Sultanpur. The unruly scenes during Murli Manohar Joshi's speech at the election meeting in Allahabad on January 22, which was attended by Vajpayee, also had its roots in the struggle in the district unit between groups led by Joshi and Assembly Speaker Kesri Nath Tripathi.

The leadership has not been able to contain the adverse reaction within the party to the choice of candidates in some seats. In Farukhabad and Pilibhit - where Sakshi Maharaj and Maneka Gandhi (as an independent supported by the BJP) are contesting - sections of the district unit of the party have refused to cooperate with the campaign. All this has strengthened the BJP's apprehension about whether it can improve its tally, although leaders like Chief Minister Kalyan Singh continue to say that the BJP and its allies will win between 70 and 75 seats.

On the other side, the S.P. appears to be confident of improving its tally, at least marginally, on the strength of its candidates and the consolidation of the votes of the minorities in most parts of the State. The party also hopes to retain the support of a section of the upper-caste Thakur votes it believed it had gained, especially in western Uttar Pradesh, on account of its campaign against the alleged misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act during the Mayawati regime. In some seats like Akbarpur, where BSP leader Mayawati is contesting, the S.P. has become the rallying point of non-Dalits, including Brahmins, who traditionally support the BJP.

Candidates of the BSP are not in the race except in a handful of constituencies like Azamgarh and Baharaich, where former Congress(I) figures Dumpy Akbar Ahmed and Arif Mohammed Khan are the candidates. While leaders of the Muslim community see these two as candidates who are capable of defeating the BJP, they do not think that other BSP nominees can do the same. Even BSP leaders admit that the party was able to increase its share of votes in the 1993 and 1996 Assembly elections largely because it was in alliance with parties that had a base among the socially dominant upper and intermediate castes.

Although the Congress(I) is buoyed by Sonia Gandhi's campaign, it finds it difficult to overcome the caste-communal polarisation. Its fight is confined to a few seats in the Amethi-Rae Bareilly belt and in the hill districts. The influence of its alliance partner, the BKKP, in western U.P. has raised the Congress(I)'s hopes in some seats like Meerut, where former Union Minister Mohsina Kidwai is the candidate. There seems to be a tacit understanding between the S.P. and the Congress(I) in some places.

The S.P. has fielded relatively weak candidates in Amethi, Rae Bareilly and Pratapgarh - Santhosh Kashyap, Surendrapal Singh and Abhay Pratap Singh. Muslims in these constituencies appear to support the Congress(I). The S.P. leadership, however, denies that this is part of a deal. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that S.P. candidates have strengthened the position of the Congress(I) in these seats.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

A distinct lack of popular enthusiasm marks the electoral scene, and the SAD-BJP alliance appears to be losing confidence.

THE Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its alliance partner, the BJP, are displaying a curious nervousness. In two of the three Lok Sabha seats it is contesting, the BJP has nominated outsiders to State politics. Film star Vinod Khanna, better known for his involvement with the Osho cult than in revanchist Hindutva, is the party's nominee for Gurdaspur. Its candidate in Hoshiarpur, Kamal Chowdhury, was the Congress(I)'s candidate in 1996. In Amritsar, the BJP nominee, State BJP general secretary Daya Singh Sodhi, is a political lightweight in comparison with the Congress(I)'s R.L. Bhatia. The SAD, for its part, spends more time attacking the Congress(I)'s past atrocities, both real and imagined, than what is politically necessary.

It is perhaps not surprising that neither the SAD nor the BJP wishes to address the present. The coalition Government's first year in office has been less than illustrious. Except in Faridkot, the constituency from where Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal's son Sukhbir Badal is seeking election, little has been done to convince voters that the SAD-BJP combine is more competent in office than the Congress(I). Faridkot has received some Rs.400 crores of state funds for development, but most of Punjab continues to face poor infrastructure and lack of industrial growth.

Punjab, perhaps predictably, is seeing an election marked by a distinct lack of popular enthusiasm. The key seat of Tarn Taran, where former Chief Minister Partap Singh Kairon's son Gurinder Singh Kairon is taking on SAD heavyweight Prem Singh Lalpura, is a case in point. Gurinder Kairon's defeat is important for powerful local figures, including his brother Surinder Singh Kairon, who lost the seat in 1996. Surinder Kairon later campaigned for SAD MLA Adesh Partap Singh Kairon, his elder son and Chief Minister Badal's son-in-law, and has now been expelled from the Congress(I). Lalpura, however, might not find the going easy, since the SAD's constituency among small and medium farmers has been hit by the perception that free power and irrigation facilities have principally benefited big landlords.

Things are not too different in the high-profile constituency of Faridkot. Sukhbir Badal has brought with him massive funding for the area's cotton farmers, who suffered crop damage owing to water-logging. A massive project is under way to tackle the problem, which damaged the 1997 kharif crop on some 50,000 hectares. Since the defeat of the Chief Minister's son would most likely mean an unceremonious end to this largesse, farmers have a clear interest in keeping the SAD in power. On the other hand, the call of the SAD-BJP formation for Hindu-Sikh sanjhedari did not stop candidates belonging to each party, disguised as independents, from going for each other's throats during the recent municipal council elections. The loss of the BJP's urban Hindu vote to the Congress(I)'s Jagmeet Singh Brar could hit the SAD. Again, voters seem sceptical about either party addressing their problems. Votes mean notes, goes a relatively new Faridkot saying, and hard cash could well be the decisive factor in the outcome.

It seems certain that the election result will be determined by how alliances play themselves out. If the BJP's vote base in Jalandhar fails to support Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, for example, the Congress(I) may turn his nostalgic return to Punjab into a disaster. In Bhatinda, the new alliance between the Congress(I)-Bahujan Samaj Party front and the Communist Party of India could harm the SAD's chances. In Gurdaspur, five-time MP Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder will be heavily dependent on CPI and BSP votes to retain her seat. BSP supremo Kanshi Ram has attracted poor crowds at his rallies, a fact he blames on the Congress(I). Neither the SAD nor the BJP leaders have attracted large audiences. If 1996 saw the SAD-BJP combine sweep to power, 1998 could well mark the beginning of its decline.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

Most of the alliances having failed to hold, the State will witness multi-cornered contests in all its 54 Lok Sabha seats.

A DOMINANT feature of the election scene in Bihar is fractured alliances and multi-cornered contests. The United Front has virtually broken up over the sharing of seats. The Congress(I) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha(Soren) have made a mockery of their alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Laloo Prasad Yadav.

The State will witness multi-cornered contests in all its 54 Lok Sabha seats. The Janata Dal has fielded candidates in 36 constituencies as it it could not resolve its differences with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Left parties. A defiant Congress(I) is contesting 21 seats after Laloo Prasad unilaterally allotted it eight seats. The RJD's seat-sharing deal with the JMM(S) also failed and the latter has fielded eight candidates.

The rift among the United Front constituents is even more palpable. Now the CPI is contesting 15 seats, the CPI(M-L) Liberation 19, the CPI(M) four and the S.P. 16, in alliance with the Bihar Jana Congress (BJC) formed by Jagannath Mishra. Janata Dal leader Pashupati Kumar Paras told Frontline that his party had allotted 10 seats to the CPI, two to the CPI(M), one to the S.P. and four to the BJC. Unhappy with their share, the S.P. and the CPI(M-L) Liberation dissociated themselves from the proposed front.

The Congress(I), piqued at Laloo Prasad's meagre offer, severed its ties with the RJD and is campaigning on its own. "We will neither campaign for the RJD nor ask Laloo Prasad Yadav to campaign for us," the Bihar Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president Sarafraz Ahmed told Frontline.

The State Congress(I) had initially decided to contest all the 54 seats, but later settled for 21 at the instance of the high command. "We are leaving the rest of the seats to the other parties," Ahmed said. Seven of the 21 seats are in south Bihar, where the party has not entered into any understanding with the JMM(S).

The only alliance that has survived the seat-sharing process is the one between the BJP and the Samata Party. The BJP will contest 32 seats and the Samata Party 22.

Prominent persons who figure in the contests are Laloo Prasad Yadav (RJD), Sharad Yadav (Janata Dal), Ram Vilas Paswan (Janata Dal), George Fernandes (Samata Party), Sibu Soren (JMM-S), Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav (BJC), Russi Mody (independent), Chaturanan Mishra (CPI), Nitish Kumar (Samata Party), C.P. Thakur (BJP) and Suraj Mandal (JMM-S).

The constituency that will witness the toughest battle is Madhepura. By opting to contest from this constituency, Laloo Prasad has shown his keenness to take on his arch rival Sharad Yadav in the Yadava heartland itself. The S.P. has fielded former Joint Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation N.K. Singh. Sharad Yadav won the seat in the last elections. The Madhepura constituency has six Assembly segments; four MLAs remained with the Janata Dal after Laloo Prasad split the party to form the RJD.

Laloo Prasad, accompanied by his wife and Chief Minister Rabri Devi, has already addressed several election meetings in the constituency. Sharad Yadav plans to camp in the constituency for a few days before February 16, the day of the polling. Addressing a gathering after filing his nomination at Madhepura, Laloo Prasad described his bete noire Sharad Yadav as a "betrayer" who tried to stab him in the back at his time of crisis. Laloo Prasad claimed that he had got Sharad Yadav elected from Madhepura twice, but when "I appealed to him with folded hands to let me continue as the Janata Dal president in the wake of the crisis created by the fodder scam, he turned it down.''

Going by the size of the crowds and the response to his speeches, it is apparent that Laloo Prasad is gaining the upper hand. Yet, Yadava voters, who form 60 per cent of the electorate, are in a dilemma. A sharp division in their votes can dash the hopes of the two Yadavs and in turn benefit the S.P. candidate.

The situation in another key constituency, Hajipur, is not so confusing. The dice is loaded heavily in favour of Railway Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, the Janata Dal candidate. Ram Sundar Das, who was defeated by him in the 1996 elections, is contesting here again on the Samajwadi Janata Party ticket, supported by the RJD. He was the S.P.'s candidate in the last election. Paswan is way ahead of his rivals as the Samata Party, despite being an ally of the BJP, is supporting him.

The demand for a Jharkhand state is the main electoral issue for almost all political parties in the 14 constituencies in south Bihar. The BJP, which almost swept the region by winning 11 seats (its total tally in the State was 18) in the 1996 elections, has announced its support to the demand for a Jharkhand state. The Congress(I) won the Rajmahal seat in the south. Sonia Gandhi, who made a 10-minute speech at Ranchi, which comes under the Jharkhand Area Autonomous Council, referred to the backwardness of the region but did not mention the statehood issue. The BJP-Samata Party alliance is likely to make further inroads into south Bihar where the anti-BJP vote is likely to be shared by the Congress(I), the JMM(S), the RJD and the Left parties.

The Samajwadi Party-Bihar Jana Congress alliance, which has fielded 16 candidates, is certain to make an all-out effort to eat into Laloo Prasad's Muslim-Yadav support base in north Bihar with joint campaigns by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Jagannath Mishra.

Sources in the BJC claimed that while Mulayam Singh had established his "secular" credentials at the national level, Mishra is popular with the minorities, especially Muslims, who constitute a sizable chunk of voters in many constituencies.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

In Tripura, the ruling Left Front appears poised to win; elsewhere in the northeastern region, the Congress has an edge.

WITH the expiry of the January 31 deadline for the withdrawal of nominations, political parties have begun the last round of campaign in Tripura and three other northeastern States - Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Meghalaya. In Tripura and Meghalaya, elections to the State Assemblies will also be held along with the Lok Sabha elections.

Landlocked Tripura will witness a keen battle between the two traditional rivals - the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led ruling Left Front and the Congress(I). The Bharatiya Janata Party is contesting all the 60 Assembly seats and the two Lok Sabha seats, but it does not have much of a presence in the State. The Left Front is confident of winning the Assembly elections for the second time in succession. In the 1993 Assembly elections, it won 49 seats; in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, it won both the seats- West Tripura and East Tripura. The BJP fared poorly in the last three Assembly elections - in 1983, 1988 and 1993.

The octogenarian Marxist leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu launched the Left Front campaign in Tripura; he addressed two well-attended rallies on February 4, one in the State capital Agartala and the other in Udaypur.

Some regional outfits are also in the fray, but their prospects appear to be bleak. The Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), a forum of hill regional units, has been in a state of disarray ever since its general secretary Devabrata Koloi, a sitting MLA, was kidnapped in July 1997 by the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). Koloi, who floated the IPFT in May last year to fight the Assembly polls, was released on January 29, but the IPFT is yet to recover from the shock. Members of the IPFT are contesting as independent candidates. Koloi is perhaps the only IPFT leader who could have fared well, but he was released two days after the expiry of the deadline for filing nominations.

There are 260 candidates for the Assembly elections. The Left Front has put up nominees in all 60 constituencies; the CPI(M) is contesting 55 seats, the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) two each and the Forward Bloc one. The CPI(M) has renominated Bajubang Reang for the East Tripura parliamentary constituency, and has fielded Samar Chowdhury in West Tripura.

The Congress(I) has put up candidates in 46 seats, leaving 14 to its allies, the Tripura Upjati Juba Samity (TUJS) and the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV). Of the 20 seats reserved for people belonging to the tribal communities, the TUJS is contesting 11 and the TNV three.

Going by the Left Front's performances in the elections to the panchayats, municipalities and the Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council, the Left Front is poised to capture both the parliamentary seats. CPI(M) spokesman Gautam Das told Frontline that in the three-tier panchayat elections in 1994, the Front won 80 per cent of the gram panchayat seats. All the 18 panchayat samitis and three zilla parishads are controlled by the Left Front. In the municipal (nagarpanchayat) elections held in 1996, the Front secured a majority in 13 out of 15 nagarpalikas.

The rift in the Congress(I) has worsened on the eve of the elections. Two of its stalwarts, State Congress(I) vice-president Ratan Chakravarty and former Revenue Minister Maharani Bibhu Kumari Debi, were denied the party ticket for the constituencies of their choice and they have opted out of the contest. The members of the block Congress(I) Committee and all 36 booth committees resigned in protest againt Ratan Chakravarty being denied the ticket for the Banmalipur seat which he won in 1988 and 1993.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the ruling Arunachal Congress, the BJP and the Janata Dal, besides a few independents, are in the race for the West Arunachal and East Arunachal seats. The Arunachal Congress nominated Omak Apang, the eldest son of Chief Minister Gegong Apang, for the West Arunchal seat, and Wangchu Rajkumar, a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, for the East Arunachal seat. Pitted against Omak Apang are two political veterans of the State, former Chief Minister Tomo Riba, the BJP candidate, and Domin Loya, former general secretary of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students' Union.

In Mizoram, the BJP is making its electoral debut - it has fielded P.L. Chuma, a Christian, for the lone parliamentary seat. But few take the party's presence seriously. Veteran Congress(I) leader and Chief Minister Lalthanhawla is dismissive of the BJP's entry on the scene. He and his party colleagues are campaigning for State Finance Minister John Lalsangzuala, the Congress(I) nominee.

Mizoram recently celebrated 100 years of the advent of Christianity; the Church plays a dominant role in the State's social and cultural life but has not so far made known its opinion on the BJP's entry.

The faction-ridden regional parties in the State have failed to put up a common candidate. Two factions of the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Mizoram People's Conference (MPC) have fielded their own candidates. The division in the anti-Congress(I) votes is certain to benefit the ruling party.

In Meghalaya, there are more than 150 candidates for the 60 Assembly and two Lok Sabha seats. Lok Sabha Speaker P. A. Sangma is contesting the Tura parliamentary seat and has a fair chance of winning. The main Opposition party, the United Democratic Front (UDF), does not have much of a support base.

BARUN DAS GUPTA

Voters in Assam are not sure if they will be able to exercise their franchise freely in view of threats by militant groups.

ELECTIONEERING did not pick up in Assam until January end since militant organisations had given a call to boycott the Lok Sabha elections. However, on February 1, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet launched the United Front's campaign by addressing rallies at Hajo and Barpeta. The next day they attended rallies at Tezpur and at Nagaon, where Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta's wife, Jayashree Goswami Mahanta, is contesting on the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) ticket.

The main plank of the U.F. campaign is the development of Assam. United Front leaders reminded the people that Assam had received a raw deal from the Centre when the Congress was in power for more than four-and-a-half decades of Independence. It is the U.F.Government that gave top priority to the development of Assam and the rest of the Northeastern region, they said. In this context, they pointed out that the Deve Gowda Government's Rs.6,100-crore development package was the first determined effort to provide infrastructure in order to make industrialisation possible in the region.

Leaders of the U.F., of which the AGP is a constituent, explained that the AGP Government had no funds to undertake development work as it had inherited from the previous Congress Government a debt burden of over Rs.5,000 crores. Most of the developmental activities in the State, including the Rs.500-crore flood control work in the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys, the construction of the fourth bridge over the Brahmaputra at Bogibeel in Upper Assam, and the upgradation of the Guwahati airport as an international airport, were taken up with Central assistance. The Centre also reimbursed the security-related expenses incurred by the State over the years. Continuation of the good work begun by the U.F. Government would be possible only if the U.F. was voted back to power, they said.

The Congress(I) campaign concentrated on the stability plank. The Assam Congress(I) has brought out a separate election manifesto, which makes curious reading. It leaves the voter wondering whether the party hopes to wrest power at the Centre or is reconciled to sitting in the Opposition. In the first part of the manifesto, it promises to undertake or execute certain schemes which are already being implemented (for instance preparing a master plan for flood control in the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys). In the second part, the manifesto lists a number of schemes for implementation. The party pledges to place the demands before the Centre or put pressure on the Centre.

However, voters are worried whether they will be able to exercise their franchise in an atmosphere of peace. Militant organisations such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have called for a boycott of the elections and warned the people not to attend election rallies. They are likely to call a bandh on polling day, February 16. Some regional parties have already given such a call. The police fear that the militants may target individual candidates and resort to violence in order to terrorise voters and party workers.

Activists of the AGP are already being assaulted or threatened by militants. At Hajo, an AGP worker was asked by ULFA to stop putting up posters for a February 1 rally. At Nagaon, four AGP activists were kidnapped and beaten for having helped organise the rally addressed by Farooq Abdullah and Surjeet. They were later released but are in hospital in a serious condition.

The State Government has asked for additional paramilitary forces from the Centre, though it knows that the Centre cannot meet its requirements fully. As the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang district admitted, it is the Home Guards and the Village Defence Parties that will guard most of the 1,400-odd polling booths in the Mangaldai constituency, which has the largest number of candidates, 12. The situation with regard to the provision of security is similar in most constituencies in the Brahmaputra Valley.

The primary task of the administration and the political parties will be to help voters overcome the fear of the extremists so that they can come out in large numbers to cast their votes. Usually, a low turnout augurs well for the ruling party. But this may not be true in all areas of Assam. In the last elections, ULFA helped the AGP in many Assembly and parliamentary constituencies. This time around it is dead set against the AGP. A low turnout may, therefore, affect the AGP's prospects.

The BJP has fielded candidates in all the 14 constituencies. Its level of support among caste Hindus has increased, but its tally of seats is not likely to grow. The BJP won only the Karimganj (S.T.) seat in the last elections.

For the AGP, the keenest fight is for the Nagaon seat where three-time winner Muhiram Saikia (Union Minister of State for Education) had to make room for the Chief Minister's wife, who resigned her government job as lecturer in Cotton College, Guwahati. The impression that she won the ticket because she is the Chief Minister's wife has made some people, within and outside the AGP, hostile to her. They resent the fact that the AGP president is adopting the "Congress culture" of introducing family members into politics. Also, they suspect that Mahanta is grooming his wife to take over the party's leadership in case he has to step down at some stage for his alleged involvement in the Letter of Credit scandal.

In 1996, Mahanta won from two constituencies - Baharampur and Nagaon. He retained Baharampur. It is said that he wanted to field his wife in the byelection in the Nagaon constituency. This was strongly opposed by Girin Barua and others of the Nagaon district AGP. Sensing the mood in the party, Mahanta did not press for her candidature. Girin Barua was nominated, and he won the seat.

Jayashree Mahanta is likely to win the election. There are allegations that the administration is working for her victory. Her Congress rival, Nripen Goswami, resigned his job in the Food Corporation of India to contest the election. Bengali Hindus and immigrant Muslims - both form sizable segments of the electorate - are hostile towards him for his alleged role in the Nellie massacre in 1983. Political observers feel that had the Congress fielded a non-controversial candidate, the party would have given Jayashree Mahanta a stiff fight.

IBOYAIMA LAITHANGBAM

The race is mainly between the Congress(I) and the Manipur State Congress. Electioneering, however, is at a low key because of threats from insurgents.

THE election issues in Manipur include the protection of the State's territorial integrity, removal of draconian laws and the shifting of the Assam Rifles from Kangla. All the parties promise to take positive action on these issues. In view of the "boycott elections" call given by the Isaac-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or the NSCN(I-M), which operates in the Naga-populated areas of Manipur also, most Naga tribal politicians could not file their nominations. No Naga tribal politician filed his or her nomination for the Tadubi Assembly seat and, as a result, Haokholet Kippen, a Kuki politician, who was the lone candidate, was declared elected. In the remaining reserved Assembly constituencies too only Kuki politicians are in the fray.

In the reserved parliamentary seat, only two Naga tribal candidates, Soso Lorho, a former Minister, and Meijulung Kamson, a former Union Minister of State and a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, had filed their nomination papers. They are under threat for having defied the boycott call. Kamson did not participate in a "Meet the Press" programme at the Imphal Press Club although it is located within 30 metres of his well-guarded residence. The Congress(I) which has fielded Kamson, seems to feel that in the prevailing situation the Kuki tribal politician, Holkhomang Haokip, the BJP candidate, stands a good chance of victory since only Kukis will cast their votes.

Candidates for the general parliamentary seat and the general Assembly seats realise that on August 4, 1997 over five lakh people (out of a population of less than two million) staged a demonstration against any territorial reorganisation of Manipur as a result of the ongoing peace talks between the Union Government and the NSCN(I-M). So, all candidates have promised that they will protect the territorial integrity of Manipur.

Restoration of communal harmony is also high on the agenda of the candidates since Naga, Kuki and Paite tribal people have been killing each other.

The race is mainly between the Congress(I) and the Manipur State Congress (MSC). For a long time the Manipur People's Party (MPP) was a force to reckon with. Both the Congress(I) and the MSC have described it as a communal party. They argue that the MPP, which has entered into an alliance with the BJP, will pose a threat to the delicate communal balance in the State if it is allowed to win. As a candidate of the ruling party, Chaoba has an edge over his rivals. The Congress(I) candidate faces several difficulties, the most important of them being the decline in the party's popularity and mass defections from its ranks to the MSC.

By and large the people do not appear to be impressed by the electoral promises, for promises regarding the removal of the Assam Rifles and the withdrawal of certain draconian laws have been made at the time of every election. Electioneering is at a low key since the candidates have not been provided adequate security. Elections in the past have witnessed killings of candidates and political leaders by armed persons. Attendance at election meetings has been thin.

In the case of the reserved parliamentary seat, a human rights campaigner Kim Gangto is also in the fray with the support of the Communist Party of India. She is, however, no match politically to the BJP's Haokip, who was a Minister for over 20 years. One woman had filed her nomination in one of the four Assembly constituencies, but she withdrew from the contest.

In all there are six candidates for the reserved parliamentary seat and nine for the general seat in Manipur. Twenty-five candidates are in the fray for the four Assembly seats.

IBOYAIMA LAITHANGBAM

The Congress(I) has already won a majority in the Assembly elections by default, and there is virtually no campaign for the lone Lok Sabha seat.

THE Congress(I) is poised to retain its hold over Nagaland with 35 of its candidates having been virtually elected unopposed to the 60-member State Assembly. No other nominations were filed until February 4, the last date for the filing of nominations. In the remaining 25 constituencies, the Congress(I) candidates face only independents. This situation was caused by the decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the two regional parties, the National Democratic Movement (NDM) and the Nagaland People's Council (NPC), to keep off the elections in response to a call of the Isaac-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or the NSCN(I-M), to boycott the elections. For the lone Lok Sabha seat in the State too the contest will be between the Congress(I) candidates and independents.

Politicians in the State were stunned when the NSCN(I-M), through a statement on February 1 renewed its threat against holding elections in Nagaland and the Naga-populated areas of Manipur. The joint statement, by Isaac Chisi Swu, chairman, and Thuingangleng Muivah, general secretary, of the NSCN(I-M), was intended to clarify a report based on what they termed "a fabricated and tendentious" handout that purportedly announced the withdrawal of the boycott call by the NSCN(I-M). The report was published shortly after the unilateral extension of the ceasefire in Nagaland for three months by the Central Government to create a congenial atmosphere for peace talks with the NSCN(I-M). The NSCN(I-M) charged the Congress(I) with "fabricating" the announcement withdrawing the bandh call.

Meanwhile, the Naga Hoho, the apex Naga organisation, and a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) formed by the Nagas had demanded the resignation of Naga Ministers and MLAs in both Nagaland and Manipur. A similar call was given by the United Naga Council and some NGOs in Manipur. While in Nagaland two members of the State Assembly, K.L. Chishi and Kekiho Sema, resigned in response to the call, Naga politicians in Manipur rejected the "boycott elections" call and refused to resign from their elected posts.

Subhas Pani, Deputy Election Commissioner, Nagaland, says that the elections in the State will be held on February 22 as scheduled. The Central and State Governments have been asked to set up security measures. The Manipur Government has requisitioned the services of 35 companies of the Central forces to police the Naga-populated areas in the State on polling day, February 16.

The Congress(I) in Nagaland had welcomed the "withdrawal of the boycott call". The party has fielded Achangba Sangtam for the lone Lok Sabha seat. Electioneering, however, is conspicuous by its absence. No election meeting has been held; even posters are not seen anywhere.

Nagaland Governor Om Prakash Sharma warned individuals and organisations against intimidating voters and disrupting elections. He appealed to the Naga Hoho and other organisations to cooperate with the authorities in holding elections. Chief Minister S.C. Jamir has blamed the NPC for its ambivalent policy while in government from 1990 to 1992. In his opinion, the NPC's policy led to the worsening of the insurgency situation in the State. He said that the previous Congress(I) Government had almost wiped out armed insurgency, but the NPC Government gave a new lease of life to the insurgency.

The most important issue in Nagaland is the restoration of peace. All sections of the people want the NSCN(I-M) and the NSCN(K) to sink their differences so that there is no more senseless killing. In response to the popular mood, these factions have declared a ceasefire on the eve of Christmas and other festivals.

The State Government and sections of the people feel that no meaningful peace can be achieved without the involvement of all the armed groups. However, the NSCN(K) is unlikely to face the NSCN(I-M) at the negotiating table: they have been at loggerheads for years and their members have been killing each other.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR

Karunakaran has won over several major communities, but his machinations have also cast a shadow on the UDF's prospects.

FORMER Chief Minister K. Karunakaran was meticulous in choosing his constituency and shrewd in wooing all elements of the electorate that could possibly influence his electoral prospects. Judging by the benefit of hindsight, every single action of his since the mid-term elections became a certainty was to fulfill his desire to become a member of the Lok Sabha and to avenge his defeat in Thrissur in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. There is no community or regional party with any presence in Thiruvananthapuram (where he is contesting now) that Karunakaran has not tried to win over. Yet, on the day he launched his aggressive campaign in Thiruvananthapuram - even before the Congress(I) had officially published its list of candidates - he committed a faux pas. He aired his views on the communal equations in the faraway Mukundapuram Lok Sabha constituency and landed himself in trouble.

The Congress(I) delayed the announcement of its list of 17 candidates because Karunakaran was bent on denying the ticket to P.C. Chacko, a member of the previous Lok Sabha. However, when it became clear that the party high command would not let him have his way, Karunakaran agreed to Chacko being given the ticket, but insisted that he be shifted from Mukundapuram to Idukki.

Karunakaran believes that his defeat in 1996 was a result of his own party workers turning groups of voters against him. Chacko was a Karunakaran supporter; however, of late, he, like PCC(I) president Vayalar Ravi, has drifted away from the Karunakaran-led faction in the State Congress(I). Karunakaran feared danger from Chacko's presence in Mukundapuram, for his son Muraleedharan is the candidate in the neighbouring Thrissur constituency.

Karunakaran, however, offered a different reason for his firm stand that Chacko be shifted from Mukundapuram - the constituency has a large population of Catholics and the Congress(I) traditionally fielded a Catholic in one of the three constituencies - Ernakulam, Thrissur or Mukundapuram. Chacko is a Jacobite Christian.

In coalition-ruled Kerala, such communal considerations play a major role in the selection of candidates by both the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF). But this was probably the first instance when a senior Congress(I) leader expressed such an opinion in public. Karunakaran's remark invited sharp reactions from leaders of the two communities he was trying to please: the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church and the Catholic Church. His statement was also portrayed as an attempt to please the Catholics of Thrissur, who he believes were responsible for his defeat in 1996.

Thus, even as he set the pace for the unity-enthused UDF's campaign - almost a fortnight after the LDF had hit the campaign trail - Karunakaran had quite uncharacteristically cast a shadow on the UDF's prospects, especially in Thrissur. The battle of the father and son against the CPI's K.V. Surendranath and V.V. Raghavan in Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur respectively promises to be the keenest in the State.

A significant factor that has emerged on the electoral scene, is the support to the UDF announced by the Indian National League (INL) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), both phenomena of the post-Babri Masjid demolition period. (The INL was formed by leaders who broke away from the Indian Union Muslim League and the PDP was launched by Abdul Nasser Mahdani, the leader of the Islamic Sevak Sangh.) Although the leaders of the two parties (which overtly or covertly supported the LDF in the previous elections) claim that their present stand is the result of the Congress(I)'s apology to Muslims for its failure to protect the masjid, the fact is that they were denied another option by the CPI(M)'s uncompromising stand not to have any alliance with communal or caste forces. Moreover, with the Muslim League's quarrels with some Congress(I) leaders having been resolved, the UDF hopes to gain from INL and PDP support, especially in some north Kerala constituencies.

The Janadhipatya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS), which has pockets of influence among Ezhava voters in Alappuzha, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts, initially threatened to field its candidates in Alappuzha and Chirayinkeezhu. The UDF won the party back by offering it "formal membership" in the coalition.

Similarly, Karunakaran has succeeded in ensuring for his followers the support of the Nair Service Society, a social organisation of one of the prominent communities in the State, and a section of the Ezhava community.

The BJP, which has a small presence in the State, gave vent to its frustration by announcing the formation of a third "Democratic Front" with even more insignificant partners - the Nadar Mahajana Sabha, one faction of the National Democratic Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

The LDF has called upon voters to prevent the growth of communalism and the return of corrupt regimes. Another major issue the LDF seeks to raise is the Congress(I)'s promise to restrict the benefits of the Public Distribution System(PDS) to the weaker sections. Such a policy will have serious implications for Kerala, which is deficient in foodgrains. And Kerala runs the most efficient PDS in the country.

S. NAGESH KUMAR

The impressive response to the rallies organised by the TDP, the Congress(I) and the BJP indicated that there would be a triangular contest in the State.

A RESURGENT Congress(I) and an upbeat BJP have taken the battle to the ruling Telugu Desam Party's camp in Andhra Pradesh. TDP leader and Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, however, is putting up a spirited fight. Unfazed by forecasts of an improved performance by the Congress(I) and the BJP, the Chief Minister pointed out that although opinion polls had given his party only two seats in the 1996 elections, "we finally won 17 seats and helped the CPI and the CPI(M) win three more."

That a tough contest is ahead became clear from the massive turnouts at the meetings of the three major players, held at the Nizam College grounds in Hyderabad within a span of 15 days. The meetings, addressed by Sonia Gandhi, United Front leaders and Atal Behari Vajpayee, indicated that unlike in the past when the votes were polarised between the Congress(I) and the TDP, this time there would be a triangular contest.

Chandrababu Naidu, who plays a pivotal role in United Front politics, is also seeking a vote on his performance as Chief Minister. In his campaign speeches he highlights participatory programmes such as Janmabhoomi, which his Government introduced. The TDP Government, he says, has rejuvenated the State administration and made the State's economy capable of absorbing new industrial investment. The Chief Minister hopes to get the support of Muslims who, he feels, trust neither the Congress(I) nor the BJP. Moving across the State in a chartered helicopter, he addresses well-attended meetings.

The Congress(I) and the BJP expect that farmers' resentment against the Government's decision to increase the power tariff and water cess will work against the TDP. Congress leaders have accused the Government of having imposed a tax burden of Rs.3,500 crores on the people and of having reneged on the welfare schemes initiated by TDP founder and former Chief Minster N.T. Rama Rao, such as the supply of rice to the poor at Rs.2 a kg.

However, defending the Government, CPI State secretary S. Sudhakar Reddy says: "There was some initial dissatisfaction over the cut in subsidies. It has not turned into anger because the people are convinced about the need to increase the price of subsidised rice. The Government still supplies rice to the poor at Rs.3.50 a kg when the market price ranges from Rs.8.50 to Rs.13 a kg."

The TDP has a well-oiled party machinery. The selection of candidates and the finalisation of seat-sharing arrangements with allies went without any hitch. The party has fielded 35 candidates and allotted three seats each to the CPI and the CPI(M) and one seat to the Janata Dal, which has nominated Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting S. Jaipal Reddy. The TDP has constituted 60,000 booth-level committees to conduct electioneering.

Although the Congress(I) was initially hampered by internal conflicts, Sonia Gandhi's visit on February 2 buoyed it. Accompanied by son Rahul, who turned out to be a star attraction, Sonia Gandhi drew huge crowds at Nalgonda, Guntur, Kakinada and Visakhapatnam. APCC(I) president Mallikarjun said: "We are least impressed by Chandrababu Naidu's campaign. His gimmick of promising power at 13 paise a unit to farmers will cut no ice with the voters. They have already made up their mind to throw the TDP out."

No less buoyant are BJP leaders. They are happy over the response to Atal Behari Vajpayee's tour and the decision of D. Venkateswara Rao, N.T. Rama Rao's son-in-law, and Mudragada Padmanabham, a popular Kapu leader from East Godavari district, to join the party. They claim that the Congress(I) is their main rival in Andhra Pradesh. But the BJP could not find strong candidates for several constituencies; it ended up fielding G. Atmacharan Reddy, Krishnam Raju, D. V. Subba Rao and some others within days of their joining the party.

The Lakshmi Parvathi-led NTR TDP had virtually given up the fight before it began. Outmaneouvred by the BJP in the sharing of seats, the party got too little and too late - four seats just a day before the close of nominations. The future of her party has now become uncertain with a large number of party workers joining the Congress(I), the TDP or the BJP.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

The main contenders, the alliances led by the DMK and the AIADMK, have hit the campaign trail with rallies attended by top leaders of their constituent parties.

THE Marina beach in Chennai saw the launch of the election campaign of the two principal alliances in Tamil Nadu on two consecutive days.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-sponsored meeting on February 1 was marked by much oratory. The speakers included the BJP's president L.K. Advani and prime ministerial candidate A.B. Vajpayee, besides AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) founder S. Ramadoss and Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy.

At the rally on February 2, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, Communist Party of India general secretary A.B. Bardhan, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) president G.K. Moopanar detailed the achievements of the United Front's Government in the last 18 months.

The main contenders are the DMK-TMC-CPI alliance and the AIADMK-led combine. Also in the fray is the Congress(I), which is contesting all the 39 Lok Sabha seats in alliance with the AIADMK faction led by former Minister S. Tirunavukkarasu and the United Communist Party of India (UCPI). The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which came out of the DMK-TMC-CPI alliance following a hitch over the sharing of seats and fielded its own candidates in six constituencies, finally decided to contest only two seats - North Chennai and Madurai. The party, however, said that it would campaign in all other constituencies for the DMK-TMC-CPI alliance from its own platform and with its own resources.

Puthia Tamilagam, a party launched by Dalit leader Dr. K. Krishnaswamy, who is a member of the State Legislative Assembly, is also in the field. It contests from 17 constituencies including Tenkasi (Reserved) where Krishnaswamy is pitted against Union Labour Minister M. Arunachalam (TMC).

So, the stage is set for multi-cornered contests in all the constituencies in Tamil Nadu.

The Marina meetings witnessed the unfolding of the strategies of the major alliances. Leaders of the DMK, the TMC, the CPI and the Janata Dal leaders targeted Jayalalitha and the Ministers in her Government (1991-96), several of whom face cases of corruption. They also criticised the "marriage of convenience" between the "corrupt" AIADMK and the "communal" BJP. Karunanidhi alleged that the BJP was playing a double game on the issue of corruption. While the BJP charged former Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav with corruption, it had no qualms in defending Jayalalitha, who also faced corruption charges, on the ground that the charges against her were yet to be proved in a court of law, he said.

Gujral's appeal was aimed at Tamil sentiments. He said that the Jain Commission's Interim Report had insulted the people of Tamil Nadu as a whole; he wanted them to give a forceful reply to the Congress(I) which toppled his Government using the baseless charge in the report that the DMK had aided and abetted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

That the DMK-led alliance would make full use of the popularity of film star Rajnikant was evident at the rally. The actor has thrown his weight behind the alliance as he did in 1996. On display at the venue of the meeting was a huge portrait of the star, along with those of Gujral, Karunanidhi and Moopanar, all in a row. The mention of Rajnikant's name brought loud applause from a section of the audience. Bardhan declared, "With Rajnikant's support, victory is certain."

At the rally on the previous night, Vajpayee, Advani, Jayalalitha and Vaiko held out the stability card. They argued that the BJP alone could provide a stable government at the Centre. Leaders of the AIADMK and the MDMK said that Vajpayee was the ideal choice for the prime ministership.

The BJP and the AIADMK tried to drive a wedge between the DMK and the TMC. Vajpayee said that when the Congress(I) demanded the exit of DMK Ministers from the Gujral Government in the wake of the Jain Commission's Interim Report, the TMC, unlike other constituents of the U.F., was reluctant to stand by the DMK. Jayalalitha said that the TMC had been piqued at the DMK's reluctance to support Moopanar for prime ministership after the resignation of H.D. Deve Gowda.

Both the major alliances, however, showed remarkable unity in attacking the Congress(I) for having pulled down the U.F. Government.

Karunanidhi was conciliatory towards the CPI(M) and the Janata Dal. He apologised to the parties for having denied them seats and said that such a situation would not arise in future. Both he and Moopanar appreciated the gesture of the CPI(M) in withdrawing its candidates from four constituencies in favour of DMK or TMC candidates.

Although the Prime Minister was the principal speaker, State leaders of his party, the Janata Dal, were conspicuous by their absence at the rally. Gujral had brushed aside their plea against his participation in the meeting. The Janata Dal fielded candidates in 10 constituencies, but withdrew them reportedly at the Central leadership's instance.

Explaining the CPI(M)'s decision to withdraw four of its candidates, the party's State secretary N. Sankaraiah said, "Our only aim is to defeat the AIADMK-BJP combination." He said that his party would go all out to defeat the five BJP candidates. "Even if one candidate from the AIADMK-BJP-MDMK-PMK gets elected, it will help in the election of Vajpayee as Prime Minister," Sankaraiah said.

PARVATHI MENON RAVI SHARMA

With the line-up finalised, political parties and candidates have switched to the campaign mode.

WHAT guided the three major electoral formations - the Congress(I), the United Front (which in Karnataka is effectively the Janata Dal, as it has not conceded a single seat to other U.F. constituents) and the BJP-Lok Shakti alliance - in choosing their candidates?

Of the 16 persons who won on the Janata Dal ticket in the State in the 1996 elections, 10 have been renominated by the party. The Janata Dal has resorted to the same strategy it adopted in 1996 with respect to the selection of candidates: candidates with powerful local bases in terms of political standing, caste status and financial soundness have been chosen for each constituency. With the central unit of the party offering only limited support, and in the absence of a strong, party-led election campaign highlighting the achievements of the 18 months of United Front rule in New Delhi, each candidate has largely to fend for himself or herself.

As in 1996, the Janata Dal, has fielded several State Ministers. In Chickaballapur it has fielded Agriculture Minister C. Byre Gowda against former Union Minister for Textiles R.L. Jalappa, who is contesting on the Congress(I) ticket. In Chitradurga, where S. Kodandaramiah won in 1996 on the Janata Dal ticket (this time he is contesting as the Lok Shakti candidate), the Janata Dal has fielded Minister for Minor Irrigation Thippeswamy. In Hassan, H.D. Deve Gowda has replaced Y.N. Rudresh Gowda, who won from there in 1996. In Dharwad South the party has fielded Minister of State for Environment, Ecology, Science and Technology Basavaraj Neelappa Shivannavar; Minister of State for Prisons V. Somanna is the candidate for Bangalore South against Ananth Kumar of the BJP and D.P. Sharma of the Congress(I).

Film actor Ambarish is contesting the Mandya seat. Rathnamala Savanoor, who won in Chikkodi in 1996 and was the only woman Janata Dal MP from the State in the 11th Lok Sabha, has been replaced by Shakuntala Chougule. In 1996, the Janata Dal stood second in eight constituencies and stood third in four. It has fielded four candidates who came in the second place in the last elections.

If the Lok Shakti makes a difference in these elections, its best performance is likely to be in the north Karnataka belt, which has 12 constituencies. The party is contesting in 10 constituencies, of which nine - Bellary, Raichur, Koppal, Chitradurga, Chikkodi, Bagalkot, Bangalore North and Chickaballapur - were won by the Janata Dal in the last elections. Two Janata Dal leaders who recently resigned from the State Ministry - Ajay Kumar Sarnaik and Ramesh C. Jigajigani - are contesting on the Lok Shakti ticket, from Bagalkot and Chikkodi respectively. In Bellary, N. Thippanna, who came in the second place in 1996 fighting on the Janata Dal ticket, is the Lok Shakti candidate.

The Lok Shakti has attracted more pre-election deserters from the Janata Dal. Recently, V.S. Ugrappa, a backward class leader of the Janata Dal, and P.C. Siddanagoudar, a Janata Dal MLA, joined the Rashtriya Nava Nirmana Vedike, the front organisation of the Lok Shakti. Yet, insofar as the alliance is concerned, it is the BJP that is the dominant partner, both in terms of number of seats contested and in terms of setting the campaign agenda.

Ramakrishna Hegde, who until 1996 had been exploring the possibility of forging an anti-BJP front comprising all secular forces, including the Congress(I), is now seeking the support of the minorities with the assurance that they have nothing to fear, but everything to gain, from a BJP government. "Where the BJP rules there are no riots," he declared to a largely Muslim gathering at a joint public meeting with BJP president L.K. Advani in Bangalore. "When there is a natural calamity, it is the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) workers who go there to work among the people. You do not doubt my secular credentials, do you? Then give the BJP a chance." While this line may attract the BJP vote in constituencies where the Lok Shakti is contesting, it may alienate the minority communities, whose sympathies Hegde could earlier lay claim to.

The BJP in Karnataka has not felt the necessity to dilute its Hindutva agenda for the sake of keeping the electoral alliance intact. The BJP was first off the block in several respects - in the selection of candidates and in getting its campaign on the road. Several national leaders of the BJP toured the State.

The party has fielded all six candidates who won in 1996. Of the 12 other seats it is contesting, it has put up first-time candidates for six; these candidates include the only woman in the BJP list, Susheela Shivappa, who is standing from Hassan against Deve Gowda and H.C. Srikantaiah of the Congress(I).

Although the Congress(I) won only five seats in 1996, it got 30.29 per cent of the total vote (as against the Janata Dal's vote share of 34.91). The Congress(I) calculates that this gap could be bridged by a combination of the Sonia effect, and the minority and backward class votes that would come back to it in these elections.

The Congress(I) has fielded some veterans who did not get the ticket in 1996 - C.K. Jaffer Sharief in Bangalore North, Janardhana Poojary in Mangalore, M. Veerappa Moily in Chickmagalur and B. Shankaranand in Chikkodi. Its last-minute denial of the Chickmagalur seat to D.K. Taradevi Sidhartha made her join the BJP. In Mysore, the Congress(I) MP in the 11th Lok Sabha, Srikantadutta Wodeyar, declined to contest on grounds of health. A similar refusal by Varalakshmi Gundu Rao, wife of the late R. Gundu Rao, to contest from Bangalore South, led to the party having to field D.P. Sharma, the owner of a transport company. Margaret Alva has been given the ticket for the Kanara seat. Congress(I) candidates too have been left to their own devices as far as campaigning and fund-raising are concerned. Sonia Gandhi is expected to make another campaign visit to the State.

The Left parties are contesting in one contituency each - the CPI(M) in Kolar (Reserved) constituency, where its candidate is Narayanaswamy, and the CPI in Chickmagalur, where it has fielded Renukaradhya. S. Bangarappa of the Karnataka Vikas Party is contesting from Shimoga.

M. MADAN MOHAN

There are two seats and two principal contestants in each of them; nevertheless, the contests promise to generate a great deal of interest.

THE line-up of candidates for the two Lok Sabha seats in Goa is on expected lines. Both members of the dissolved Lok Sabha, Union Minister of State for Law Ramakant Khalap and Churchill Alemao, are in the fray in their respective constituencies, Panaji (North Goa) and Mormugao (South Goa). Their main rivals are Congress(I) candidates: former Chief Minister Ravi Naik and former State Agriculture Minister Francisco Sardinha respectively. The presence of other contestants is only of academic interest.

Parliamentary elections in Goa have evoked little interest in the Goan electorate except when there was a possibility of a numbers game at the time of the formation of government in New Delhi, as it happened after the 1996 elections. Two local parties, the United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP) in the Catholic-dominated Mormugao and the Maharashtravadi Gomantak Party (MGP) in the Hindu-dominated Panaji, defeated the Congress(I) in 1996. Mormugao was considered a traditional stronghold of the Congress(I); its victory in Panaji in 1991 was largely unexpected.

However, the loss of two Lok Sabha seats did not cause any embarrassment to the Pratapsinh Rane Government in Goa.

Ramakant Khalap of the MGP and Churchill Alemao of the UGDP joined the United Front coalition at the Centre and Khalap found a berth in the Ministry. Khalap and Alemao continue to be with the U.F. Locally, they are opposed to each other: it is said that Alemao even planned to put up a candidate in Panaji in a bid to defeat Khalap.

The contests in the two constituencies promise to be interesting. The outcome, however, will depend on the extent of anti-party activity in the State Congress(I). One of the accusations against Khalap is that his stint in New Delhi has hardly benefited Goa.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The split in the Opposition vote is expected to benefit the CPI(M)-led Left Front, but it is leaving nothing to chance.

IN West Bengal, 164 candidates are in the fray in the 42 parliamentary constituencies. For the first time, the State will witness three-cornered contests in all the constituencies. The three main political formations are the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led ruling Left Front; the Congress(I) and its allies; and the Trinamul Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party combine.

In the 1996 general elections, the BJP did field candidates in the State but the contest was principally between the Left Front and the Congress(I). The nine-party Left Front won 33 seats. This time it looks set to improve on that performance because the Opposition vote will be split by the Congress(I) and the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine.

Even so, the Left Front, particularly the CPI(M), is leaving nothing to chance. Front organisations of the Left Front constituents have been directed to ensure that the Front's campaigners and committed voters do not remain complacent. The CPI(M)'s campaign got off to a start long before its rivals hit the campaign trail. The party has consolidated its organisation and activated grassroots-level units in both rural and urban areas. The emphasis is on locally organised meetings rather than on big election rallies. This way, explained Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, it was possible to get closer to the people.

The Congress(I), in comparison, took a long while to get over the shock of the split in its ranks, which led to the formation of the Trinamul Congress led by Mamata Banerjee. Sonia Gandhi's entry on the campaign scene checked the defection of more of its leaders to the Trinamul Congress. The party's campaign got under way with three rallies addressed by Sonia Gandhi - at Malda, Raigunj and the Brigade Parade Ground in Calcutta - in the first week of February. State Congress(I) president Somen Mitra ensured the support of erstwhile dissidents by getting them the party ticket or organisational posts. For instance, State Congress vice-president and Indian National Trade Union Congress leader Subrata Mukherjee, who was upset over not being given the ticket, was made chairman of the campaign committee.

The Trinamul Congress finally clinched a seat-sharing agreement with the BJP under which the Trinamul Congress will contest 29 seats and the BJP 13. But it is not keen on joint campaigns with the saffron party. Mamata Banerjee had all along tried to keep her talks with the BJP under wraps, fearing that her party would lose the support of minority communities. Her fears appear to have come true. Reports from the districts suggest that the Trinamul Congress is poorly placed in almost all the seats it is contesting. Muslim voters, who constitute about 20 per cent of the State's electorate, are reported to be unhappy with her for entering into an agreement with the BJP. They believe that this will allow the BJP, which has no support base in the State, to gain a foothold.

The effects of internal dissension - and external pressure from the Congress(I) and the CPI(M) - seem to be telling on the Trinamul Congress. On January 29, Mamata Banerjee was targeted by her own disgruntled partymen in North Dinajpur and Cooch Behar districts. The trouble arose when, on a campaign tour of North Bengal, she refused to address a meeting in Raigunj on the plea that the constituency had been allotted to the BJP. Unable to blame the Congress(I) or the CPI(M) for the violent incidents - as she has been known to do all too often - Mamata Banerjee, somewhat uncharacteristically, uttered not a word in protest.

At the grassroots level, there is still some confusion over the nature of the electoral arrangement between the Trinamul Congress and the BJP. Some leaders of the new party have voiced their reservations about the fact that while the Congress(I) began to focus its attack on the BJP at the national level, the Trinamul Congress was parleying with the saffron party in West Bengal. The Trinamul Congress' campaign is also hampered by organisational problems. Trinamul Congress candidates - Ajit Panja in Calcutta North-east and Sudip Banerjee in Calcutta North-west, for instance - have been virtually left to fend for themselves.

A senior Congress(I) leader reasoned that Mamata Banerjee's campaign had failed to take off because she had all along been a virulent antagonist of the Left Front and "local enmities do not count for much in parliamentary elections which are fought on national issues."

The CPI(M) launched its campaign as soon as the election dates were announced. Although some senior party MPs were replaced, there was no wrangling over nominations, unlike in other parties. The octogenarian Marxist leader Jyoti Basu is the Left Front's main campaigner. After addressing a huge United Front rally in Calcutta on January 31, Jyoti Basu undertook a tour of the districts and appealed to the electorate to support the Left Front and enable it to win all the 42 seats.

"We must win all the seats from West Bengal and emerge as the largest group in the United Front," he said. Abiding by the Election Commission's directive, he travelled by train or car on his campaign tours.

At a United Front rally, which was attended by a galaxy of leaders, Jyoti Basu hinted that the CPI(M) would join the government if the United Front came to power at the Centre. "A historic moment has arrived for Bengal once again to lead the nation by example," he said.

V. VENKATESAN

With its opponents in disarray, the BJP has the edge - despite fissures in its own ranks.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party appears to have a definite edge over other parties in the elections to the Gujarat Assembly as also for the Lok Sabha seats in the State. This is despite the fact that the BJP has to be on the defensive in Gujarat with respect to its stability slogan: even though it won a massive mandate in the last Assembly elections, it could not complete its five-year term in government.

The BJP's principal adversaries, the Congress(I) and the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP), tried to paper over their differences and reach an agreement over the sharing of seats. An agreement appeared unlikely until a day before the last date for filing nominations. Even if they achieve a breakthrough, the damage that has already been caused to the unity of anti-BJP forces cannot be undone.

The Congress(I) decided on February 2 to go it alone, after RJP leader Shankarsinh Vaghela announced the breakdown of talks between the two parties a day earlier. Vaghela accused the Congress(I) of being unreasonable in not conceding his demand for one more Lok Sabha seat. The RJP came out with a "charge-sheet" against the Congress(I), which accused it of betrayal. It also announced its list of candidates for all the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats. PCC president C.D.Patel, who has opposed alliance with the RJP, went through the motions of carrying on talks with the RJP, only to satisfy Congress president Sitaram Kesri and other central leaders. However, he said that it was difficult to proceed further with the talks as the RJP's attitude was unreasonable.

The Congress(I) was willing to let the RJP contest seven Lok Sabha constituencies - Kutch, Patan(S.C.), Rajkot, Mehsana, Gandhinagar, Surat and Kapadyanj. The RJP demanded the Dhandhuka(S.C.) seat too, but the Congress(I) refused to yield. Naturally, the Congress(I) wanted to contest all the 10 seats it won in 1996 - Sabarkantha, Anand, Dohad(S.T.), Vadodara, Banaskantha, Mandvi(S.T.), Surendra Nagar, Kaira, Godhra, and Chhota-Udaipur(S.T.). The party staked it claim for three additional seats - Dhandhuka(S.C.), Amreli, and Porbandar. Besides, the two parties could not resolve their claims over six seats - Bulsar, Junagadh, Broach, Jamnagar, Ahmedabad and Bhavnagar - which had been won by the BJP in 1996.

There were also problems in sharing the Assembly seats. The Congress(I) was unwilling to give the RJP seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. The RJP was keen on contesting these seats. The RJP demanded both the Assembly seats reserved for the S.C.s in Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar districts - Bavla and Shaher Kotada. The Congress(I) was willing to give only one of these to the RJP. Enthused by Sonia Gandhi's campaign in Bardoli and counting on her expected forays into Gujarat, Congress(I) leaders are determined to take on the BJP without RJP support.

Many State leaders of the Congress(I) believed that the RJP was targeting what they saw as the Congress(I)'s traditional support base. They argued that triangular contests would benefit their party. In the 1995 Assembly elections, for instance, while the Congress(I) won 45 seats, its defeat in 28 seats was by a margin of less than 2,000 votes. In another 11 seats, its margin of defeat were by less than 5,000 votes. State leaders of the Congress(I) believe that the party will only benefit by dropping its plan to have an alliance with the RJP in the absence of a pro-BJP wave. If the Congress(I) wins 80 seats in the Assembly, it can form the government with the help of the Atma Ram Patel group of the BJP, which has joined the Janata Dal, and a few independents, according to observers. On the contrary, if the Congress(I) does strike an alliance with the RJP and concedes half the seats to the ally, it will not be in a position to retain its strength in the dissolved Assembly, according to a party assessment.

Therefore, observers see a design in Vaghela's blowing hot and cold on the alliance. By announcing the breakdown of talks before the Congress(I) did so, he hoped to assert himself and force the Congress(I) to concede his demands. He, however, said that he was "considerate", in announcing the party's support to a few Congress(I) candidates, such as B.K. Gadhvi, Sanat Mehta and Iswarbhai Chavda. Gadhvi contests from the Banaskantha Lok Sabha constituency, from where he won in 1996, while Sanat Mehta has been renominated for Surendranagar. Chavda, father-in-law of former AICC general secretary and Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki, has been given the Congress(I) ticket for the Anand Lok Sabha seat. Vaghela supports these candidates because they were in favour of keeping the alliance at all costs. Even after announcing the breakdown of the talks, Vaghela held talks with Gadhvi as he came under pressure from the party to reach an agreement with the Congress(I).

However, pressure built up within the Congress(I) to abandon the talks. It was pointed out that the RJP's Gujarat unit president, Madhusudan Mistry, had reportedly called Sonia Gandhi a "foreigner" and said that 10 Janpath would finally tilt the scales against the alliance. Sitaram Kesri, according to RJP sources, wanted to retain the alliance in order to ensure campaign-funding by Vaghela. The Congress(I) leaders expect Sonia Gandhi's campaign to settle the issue finally.

Meanwhile, fissures are evident in the BJP. Although the BJP resolved to renominate all the 76 MLAs who remained with the party after the split, hardliners in the party have reportedly decided to ensure the defeat of about a dozen "semi-Khajurias", as Vaghela's sympathisers in the party are called.

This would, according to the BJP's critics, reduce the party's tally considerably. The hardliners reportedly enjoy the support of former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, who is projected as the future Chief Minister.

Bhupendrasinh Chudasma, Fakirbhai Vaghela, Bharat Barot, Kamlesh Patel, and Arvind Patel are reportedly among the "semi-Khajurias" who would be targetted by the hardliners.

The choice of candidates for the Assembly elections has heightened the BJP's worries. The BJP is likely to field a few Muslim candidates, in line with its all-India policy.

R. PADMANABHAN

Enthused by the overwhelming response to its rally at Nandurbar the Congress(I) is back in contention, forcing the BJP-Shiv Sena combine to go on the defensive.

IN a dramatic reversal of the earlier trend, the Congress(I) outshone the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance in the election arena in Maharashtra during the 12-day period ended February 3. The party has drawn inspiration from the greater-than-expected public response to Sonia Gandhi's January 23 rally in Nandurbar, a reserved constituency in Dhule district in northern Maharashtra. The success of the rally also prompted the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance to appear even more dismissive than before of the "Sonia factor".

Senior Congress(I) leader Sharad Pawar chose Nandurbar for Sonia Gandhi's first rally in Maharashtra because the constituency is considered to be one of the citadels of the party. Manikrao Gavit, the party's candidate for the seat for the sixth consecutive time, has won the seat on all earlier occasions. Even so, the turnout at the rally - estimated at more than two lakhs - exceeded all expectations. Sonia Gandhi herself reportedly described it as the largest crowd she had seen since her entry on the campaign scene.

During the 12-day period after the rally, the Congress(I) also concluded a State-level electoral alliance with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the two major factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI), announced its list of candidates for all the 40 seats it is contesting - leaving the remaining eight to its allies - and stepped up its campaign. Although the BJP and the Shiv Sena had started the process of selecting candidates ahead of the Congress(I), the Shiv Sena completed the process only four days after the Congress(I), and the BJP had yet to do so.

An upbeat Congress(I) plans to hold a rally at Shivaji Park in central Mumbai during Sonia Gandhi's scheduled visit to the metropolis on February 22. The last time the party held a rally here was during Rajiv Gandhi's election tour of 1991. The party had no charismatic leader since then, and rallies at Shivaji Park had become a 'saffron' prerogative.

But it was certainly not good news all the way for the forces opposed to the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. The United Front (U.F.) in Maharashtra, beset with internal squabbles, is a shambles. After the S.P. concluded an alliance with the Congress(I), the Janata Dal and the S.P., both U.F. constituents, have accused each other of selling out to "communal forces".

The Janata Dal has since announced its candidates for five seats in addition to the 12 where it had unilaterally named candidates, despite an agreement within the U.F. that the party would be allotted only six seats. It also gave notice of its intention to name candidates for two more seats. The "third force" as a whole had failed to win a single seat in the 1996 elections.

Even before the Congress(I)-S.P. alliance was concluded, the Janata Dal had named its candidate for Mumbai South-Central, where the S.P. and the Kamgar Aghadi, yet another U.F. constituent, are fighting the Sena's Mohan Rawale, who was elected to the 11th Lok Sabha from the constituency. After the conclusion of the alliance, the Janata Dal named a candidate for Mumbai North-West. Both Mumbai South-Central and Mumbai North-West were allotted to the S.P. under the Congress(I)-S.P. agreement.

The breakdown of talks within the U.F. and the resultant prospect of fewer straight contests will help the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. The ironing out of differences between the saffron partners on the candidature of former Minister of State for Railways Suresh Kalmadi, who left the Congress(I) recently, will also work in its favour. After Kalmadi gave an assurance in writing that he would not rejoin the Congress(I), it was decided on January 27 that he would contest the Pune seat as an independent with BJP-Shiv Sena support(he held the seat in the dissolved Lok Sabha). Pune is among the 26 constituencies that the alliance has allotted to the BJP, the remaining 22 constituting the Shiv Sena's quota.

Besides Mumbai South-Central, the S.P. has been alloted Dahanu, Mumbai North-West and Thane. The understanding among the the U.F. constituents was that only Mumbai South-Central would be allotted to the Kamgar Aghadi, founded by the slain trade union leader Datta Samant, and that Dahanu would go to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

As on February 3, however, trade union leaders Dada Samant (Kamgar Aghadi), Datta Samant's brother, and Sharad Rao (Janata Dal), who left the Samata Party recently, and Sohail Lokhandwala (S.P.) were in the fray in Mumbai South-Central, besides the Shiv Sena candidate.

Tushar Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, who is the S.P. candidate in Mumbai North-West, will have to contend with A.A. Khan (Janata Dal), a former police officer, and Madhukar Sarpotdar(Shiv Sena), who won the seat in 1996 by a margin of 88,469 votes. As for Thane, where the Shiv Sena won nearly 52 per cent of the votes in 1996, the S.P. suffered a setback when Rajaram Salvi, its State president and candidate-designate, defected to the BJP in January. The party has now given the ticket to Chandrika Kenia, who had been a member of the (old) Janata Party, the Congress(I), the Shiv Sena and again the Congress(I) before joining the S.P. on February 2.

Under the Congress(I)-RPI pact, Mumbai North-Central, Amravati, Chimur and Akola were allotted to the RPI (Akola has been allotted to the Prakash Ambedkar faction). Senior RPI leaders R.S. Gavai, Ramdas Athavale and Prakash Ambedkar are contesting from Amravati, Mumbai North Central and Akola respectively. Athavale has to contend with an RPI rebel, apart from the Shiv Sena's Narayan Athavale who won the seat last time by a margin of 17.6 per cent of the vote over his nearest rival. An RPI rebel has also entered the fray in Mumbai North-East, where Gurudas Kamat of the Congress(I) faces BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan. Neither of the rebels, however, is considered to have much influence among the RPI rank and file.

The Congress(I) has named the same candidates as in 1996 for 16 of the 40 seats, including 10 of the 15 members of the dissolved Lok Sabha. Datta Meghe, a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, has been shifted from Ramtek to Wardha and Vilas Muttemwar, who lost in Chimur in 1996 (this seat has been allotted to the RPI this time), to Nagpur.

Sharad Pawar is contesting from his home turf of Baramati. The Congress(I) list includes 22 of his known supporters and another half a dozen considered friendly with him. Among the other members of the dissolved Lok Sabha who are in the fray are former Chief Minister A.R. Antulay (Kolaba) and former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil (Latur). Other well-known Congress candidates include former Chief Minister Sudhakar Naik (Washim), former Union Minister of State Mukul Wasnik (Buldhana) and former MP Murli Deora (Mumbai South). Former Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president Sushilkumar Shinde is contesting from Solapur.

At one stage there was speculation that the Congress(I) would offer the Nagpur seat to Banwarilal Purohit, who won the seat on the BJP ticket in 1996. Purohit parted company with the BJP on the question of the grant of a coal-mining lease to a private company and made serious allegations against Pramod Mahajan. He told Frontline on February 4 that he had decided not to contest the elections, that he had ensured the defeat of the BJP's Ramesh Mantri in Nagpur, and that he would campaign against the BJP-Sena alliance in all the 11 constituencies in Vidarbha.

The BJP faced trouble in Pune as well. Former MP Anna Joshi, a hard-core Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member, quit the party on January 28 in protest against the nomination of Kalmadi and announced his intention to contest the seat as an independent. Three days later he returned to the party and fell in line. However, BJP supporters who are unhappy with the choice of Kalmadi have the option of voting for Avinash Dharmadhikari. A former deputy secretary to Chief Minister Manohar Joshi and a crusader against corruption, Dharmadhikari has an RSS background.

The Shiv Sena ultimately decided not to field former Chief Election Commissioner T. N. Seshan. After it had announced its earlier lists, only Ahmednagar, Khed (Pune district) and Washim (Akola district) remained to be filled. For the Ahmednagar seat the party named the formidable Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, a sugar baron and a former Congress(I) veteran who is at odds with Sharad Pawar. Vikhe Patil, who left the Congress(I) in November last year and joined the Shiv Sena recently, has won five times from the adjoining Kopargaon constituency. The Shiv Sena says it did not consider either Washim, (where Sudhakar Naik is the Congress(I) candidate) or Khed to be safe for Seshan. Moreover, Seshan had reportedly expressed a preference for an urban constituency.

The BJP and the Shiv Sena have stepped up their attack on Sonia Gandhi even while claiming that the Sonia factor will have no impact in Maharashtra. The strongest attack was launched by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray at a rally in Aurangabad on January 24, a day after the Congress(I) rally at Nandurbar. In his speech, Thackeray allegedly said that it was because of Sonia Gandhi's influence that Christians had risen to positions of power when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. According to reports, footage of Thackeray's speech, parts of which the District Election Officer found objectionable, has been sent to the Election Commission.

Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde, while addressing a media conference in Mumbai on January 30, asked Sonia Gandhi not to confine herself to apologising for the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Operation Bluestar but to apologise to the nation for Partition, the Emergency, the loss of lives in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement of 1960, the March 1993 serial bomb blasts and the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, and the "imposition" of a second round of Lok Sabha elections on the nation within a span of 18 months.

Meanwhile the Congress(I) in Maharashtra looks forward to Sonia Gandhi's scheduled tour of parts of Vidarbha, Marathwada and western Maharashtra on February 14 and 15 and her visit to Mumbai on February 22.

V.VENKATESAN

There are several heavy-weights in the fray, and the main contest is between the BJP and the Congress(I).

IN Madhya Pradesh, the Congress(I) has chosen not to have any electoral understanding with the Bahujan Samaj Party and decided to contest all the 40 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress(I) candidates include six Cabinet Ministers of the Digvijay Singh Government, two former Governors who were also Chief Ministers and four former Union Ministers. The Congress(I) appears to have taken a conscious decision to field political 'heavy-weights' in order to offer a serious challenge to the BJP, which held 28 of the 40 seats in the dissolved Lok Sabha.

One of the six State Ministers, Balendu Shukla, has been fielded in Bhind. Shukla is considered close to AICC general secretary Madhavrao Scindia, who contests from Gwalior. Another Minister, Rajinder Singh contests from Satna. Home Minister Charan Das Mahant contests from Janjgir, while Jogeshwar Sahu contests from Durg. Mahendra Singh, also a Scindia supporter, is the party's candidate for the Khandwa seat, while another Minister, Narendra Nahata, contests from Mandsaur. The sixth Minister, Kanti Lal Bhuria, faces in Jhabua his long-time rival and the Congress(I) candidate who won in 1996, Dilip Singh Bhuria, who is now the BJP's candidate.

Former Uttar Pradesh Governor Motilal Vora has been fielded in Rajnandgaon, and Arjun Singh in Hoshangabad. The party has nominated all but two of the nine winners of the 1996 elections for the same constituency. They are Madhavrao Scindia in Gwalior, Tilak Raj Singh in Siddhi(S.T.), Lakshman Singh in Rajgarh, Paras Ram Bharadwaj in Sarangarh(S.C.), Vishveswar Bhagat in Balaghat, Pawan Diwan in Mahasamund and Khelsai Singh in Sarguja(S.T.). Kamal Nath's wife Alka Nath won the Chhindwara seat in 1996. Kamal Nath lost the seat to the BJP's Sunderlal Patwa in the byelection that was held following Alka Nath's resignation. Kamal Nath has replaced his wife as the Congress(I)'s candidate for Chhindwara.

In Kanker(S.T.), Arvind Netam's wife Chhabila Netam, who won on the Congress(I) ticket in 1996, has been replaced by Mahendra Singh Karma who won the Bastar seat as an independent candidate supported by Scindia. Mankuram Sodi, who was the Congress(I)'s candidate in Bastar in 1996, has been renominated. Former Union Minister V.C. Shukla has been given the ticket for Raipur, where he faces the BJP's winner in 1996, Ramesh Vaish. Shukla was denied the Congress(I) ticket in 1996 in view of his alleged involvement in the hawala scandal.

The main contest is between the Congress(I) and the BJP. Two constituencies that will see keen battles are Hoshangabad, where Arjun Singh faces Sartaj Singh, and Rajnandgaon, where Motilal Vora takes on Ashok Sharma. Other important constituencies include Chhindwara, Raipur, Rajgarh, Raigarh, Vidisha and Gwalior. In Chhindwara, Kamal Nath once again faces Sunderlal Patwa, while in Rajgarh, Chief Minister Digvijay Singh's younger brother Laxman Singh takes on former Chief Minister Kailash Joshi. In Raigarh (ST), the Congress(I)'s additional spokesperson and Digvijay Singh's political rival Ajit Jogi faces the BJP's State president, Nand Kumar Sai. In Vidisha, the Congress(I) candidate is former President S.D. Sharma's son, Ashutosh Sharma; he is locked in a keen contest with the BJP's Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan, who was a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha. Atal Behari Vajpayee won this seat in 1991.

Madhavrao Scindia's rival in Gwalior is the erstwhile Bajrang Dal president, Jai Bhan Singh Pawayya, who is contesting on the BJP ticket. In 1996 the BJP opted out of the contest in Gwalior in order to help Scindia defeat the Congress(I) candidate. Scindia was then the leader of the Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress that he floated. The MPVC has now merged with the Congress(I) after former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao stepped down as party president.

The Congress(I) candidate in Dhar(S.T.) is Gajender Singh Rajukheri, considered a Scindia supporter. Rajukheri, who is said to have taken part in the kar seva at Ayodhya as a BJP activist in 1992, later joined the Congress(I). Digvijay Singh wanted to field one of his Ministers in this constituency, but Scindia overruled him.

The Congress(I), according to a senior leader, is confident of winning only four seats: Gwalior, Sarangarh(S.C.), Kanker(S.T.), and Sarguja(S.T.). According to this leader, the Congress(I) may have a fighting chance in Raipur, Hoshangabad, Mahasamund, Rajnan dgaon, Raigarh(S.T.), Sidhi, Balaghat and Vidisha.

The party's choice of candidates for Indore, Rewa and Jabalpur has been questioned by some leaders. Its candidate for Indore is Pankaj Sanghvi, whose brothers are reportedly with the BJP. Sanghvi is pitted against the BJP's Sumitra Mahajan.

In Jabalpur, the Congress(I) has fielded Dr. Alok Chandsuria. Although Chandsuria lacks popularity, he is believed to enjoy the confidence of Digvijay Singh and another influential leader Suresh Pachouri. The chances of victory of the party's candidate in Rewa, Madan Mohan Gupta, are considered low.

The police firing in Multai tehsil of Betul district in January, in which 17 farmers died, may increase the BJP's victory margin in the constituency.

The Congress(I) wanted to field Madhavrao Scindia's son Jyotiraje Scindia for Guna in the event of Madhavrao Scindia's mother and BJP leader Vijayaraje Scindia withdrawing from the contest owing to ill-health.

Vijayaraje Scindia has reportedly come under pressure from her youngest daughter, Yashodhararaje, also of the BJP, to retire in her favour. Yashodhararaje and Vijayaraje filed their nomination papers for Guna on February 3.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Local issues, the candidates' political record and caste equations will decide the outcome in many constituencies.

THE election scene in Rajasthan is much the same as it was in 1996, when the Congress(I) won 11 seats and the BJP 13. The contest this time, however, is expected to be a lot keener. Although the BJP and the Congress(I) are still the two principal contestants, a third force has emerged in the form of the United Front constituents (which have, however, failed to work out a seat-sharing agreement). Congress(I) and BJP rebels may also affect the results in some constituencies.

Both the Congress(I) and the BJP concede that some of their traditional strongholds can no longer be taken for granted. For instance, the Congress(I) has virtually given up on Nagaur, a constituency that has traditionally been represented by Congress(I) members from the Mirdha family. Richpal Mirdha, a nephew of the late Nathu Ram Mirdha, who was to be the Congress(I) nominee, joined the BJP and was given the ticket. The Congress(I) candidate, Ram Raghunath Chaudhary, is a seasoned politician but this alone may not count for much in the Mirdha family pocketborough.

The Congress(I) may find it difficult to retain the Banswara-Dungarpur seat, where it has replaced Tarachand Bhagoria, who represented it in the dissolved Lok Sabha. The party is trying to capitalise on the anti-establishment mood in Kota, where there has been widespread industrial unrest. However, the BJP has fielded a political heavyweight - Raghuveer Singh Kaushal, president of the State unit of the party. Kota had elected BJP leader Dau Dayal Joshi thrice since 1989. The Congress(I) candidate, Ram Narayan Meena, lost to Joshi in 1996 by a narrow margin. State Congress(I) president Ashok Gehlot told Frontline in Jaipur that his party had 'good chances of winning the Kota seat'.

Congress(I) leaders reckon that Sonia Gandhi's campaign will improve the party's prospects in Rajasthan. In addition, they believe that the fact that the All India Indira Congress (Tiwari), which ate into the support base of the Congress(I) in the last election, has merged with the Congress(I) will benefit the party.

Gehlot said that Sonia Gandhi's campaign tours had 'boosted the morale of Congressmen in the State and elsewhere.' Sonia Gandhi's campaign schedule may take in those constituencies where the contest is expected to be close and others where the BJP has fielded strong candidates. Sonia Gandhi addressed public meetings in Dausa (former Union Minister Rajesh Pilot's constituency); Udaipur (Girja Vyas); and Jodhpur (Ashok Gehlot). She also addressed fairly well-attended meetings in Kota and Bhilwara. Bhilwara DCC president Devendra Singh told Frontline that had Sonia Gandhi announced her decision to campaign earlier than she did, it could have prevented some party persons from leaving the party. 'Unless you have a rallying point, nobody responds,' he said.

The crowds at Sonia Gandhi's meetings were made up largely of people from the rural areas. For the Udaipur rally, for instance, crowds were mobilised mainly from Banswara-Dungarpur and rural Udaipur.

Although the Congress(I) hopes to gain from the AIIC(T)'s merger with it in several constituencies, Jhunjhunu is an exception. Here, Sheesh Ram Ola of the Congress(S) is pitted against Jagdeep Dhankar of the Congress(I) and Madan Lal Saini of the BJP. Ola contested and won on the AIIC(T) ticket in 1996, and is expected to win this time around too. In Bharatpur, the Congress(I) has fielded former Union Minister K. Natwar Singh, who was the AIIC(T) candidate in 1996. The party hopes to fare well in Alwar, where veteran leader Ghasi Ram Yadav is contesting, and Bhilwara, where Shiv Charan Mathur, who contested on the AIIC(T) ticket in 1996 and lost, is campaigning on behalf of Ram Pal Upadhyaya of the Congress(I). Considering that the margins of victory in several constituencies was narrow in 1996, the Congress(I)'s optimism is not without reason.

The Congress(I) may find the going tough in Jalore and Nagaur and if it does not retain these seats it cannot hope to improve its tally. In Jalore, former Union Home Minister Buta Singh, who was denied the Congress(I) ticket, is contesting as an independent; there are reports that the local unit of the Congress(I) is backing him and not the party candidate, Parasram Meghwal. (Buta Singh has been expelled from the party.)

The BJP is not comfortably placed, notwithstanding claims by its leaders that the party will win over 20 seats. Assembly elections are due by December and an anti-establishment wave is palpable. This is noticeable among virtually every section - farmers and industrial workers, the middle class and the lower income groups which have been hit hard by the hike in transport fares and water and electricity tariffs, and the minorities and women, who have been victims of attacks.

The BJP may find it difficult to retain Ganganagar, Kota, Bikaner, Chittorgarh, Bayana, Tonk and Bhilwara. It hopes to win in Jalore - where it reckons that Buta Singh will cut into the Congress(I)'s votes - and Dungarpur. The BJP is confident of retaining the Nagaur seat.

In its campaign, the BJP has scrupulously avoided raising local issues. Instead, it highlights the achievements of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat's seven-year regime and projects its prime ministerial candidate, Atal Behari Vajpayee.

As for the United Front, it might make a dent in the support base of the Congress(I) or the BJP in Bikaner, Sikar and Banswara. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has fielded Sheopat Singh (in Bikaner) and Amra Ram, a sitting MLA (in Sikar) They have the support of farmers is these constituencies. Observers believe that the fight in both these constituencies will be intense. The Congress(I) nominee in Bikaner is former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar; in Sikar it is Hari Singh, who represented the constituency in the 11th Lok Sabha. In Banswara, the Janata Dal has a good chance of victory as its candidate is Mama Baleshwar, a popular leader of the tribal communities.

In all, there are 219 candidates in the fray. Most parties evidently had caste equations in mind while choosing their candidates. Caste will play a role in the elections, but the political record of the candidates, the extent of their contact with the electorate and, above all, local issues are expected to decide the outcome.

S.K. PANDE

The Congress(I) is the front-runner; the Bharatiya Janata party is riven by infighting.

HIMACHAL PRADESH is one State where the Congress(I) is firmly ensconced. What troubles the Congress(I) in most other States, infighting, is the BJP's bane here.

The feud between the factions headed by Prem Kumar Dhumal, State BJP chief, and former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar, intensified to such an extent that Dhumal, who figured in the first list as the candidate for the Hamirpur Lok Sabha seat, was dropped from the list and he was nominated to the Bamsan Assembly constituency in the second list.

Shanta Kumar, an aspirant for the Chief Minister's post, declined to contest the Assembly elections after having lost the battle for control of the State party (Dhumal was asked to lead the party's campaign). As the two-time Chief Minister sulked, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worked out a patch-up formula. This effort failed and the BJP leadership was left with no option but to nominate Shanta Kumar for the Kangra Lok Sabha seat.

Compounding the BJP's problems, the Shiv Sena has decided to contest a few Assembly seats and wants an electoral understanding with the BJP.

Nevertheless, the BJP may win one parliamentary seat and at least a dozen Assembly seats. It is the United Front that is likely to spring a surprise on the Congress(I), which is clearly the front-runner.

Two-thirds of the candidates fielded by the Congress(I) and the BJP in the Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies are seasoned politicians. The old war-horse Ram Lal Thakur is contesting for the ninth time from his usual Assembly seat of Jubbal Kothi on the Congress(I) ticket. He has the distinction of having defeated Virbhadra Singh, the Chief Minister, as a Janata Dal candidate. Ramlal will now take on the BJP newcomer Suresh Chauhan. Virbhadra Singh faces Khushi Ram, senior vice-president of the BJP, in the Rohru Assembly constituency.

Kangra will witness a keen contest between Shanta Kumar and former State Congress(I) chief Sat Mahajan. The former seeks to avenge the drubbing by Mahajan in 1996 and recapture his position as the top-most leader of the State BJP. In this, he may be helped by the local people's displeasure with Mahajan (he is described as an absentee landlord, who is often away on foreign jaunts).

The triangular contest in Mandi promises to be a cliff-hanger. In this traditional Congress(I) stronghold, Virbhadra Singh's wife Pratibha Singh is pitted against Sukh Ram of the Himachal Vikas Manch and Maheswar Singh of the BJP.

Sukh Ram, former Minister of State for Communications and a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, appears to have an edge over his rival in view of the fact that he ushered in advances in telecommunications in Mandi. His election symbol, telephone, is, however, a reminder of the telecom scandal involving him.

The prominent political parties in the State have raised no serious electoral issues for debate. The Congress(I) and the BJP are banking on the stability card and the HVC talks of 'repression' by the Chief Minister.

Virabhadra Singh has toured the entire State and Sonia Gandhi and daughter Priyanka made their first forays into the State with some success. One question that baffles political analysts is whether the HVC will erode the Congress(I)'s support base. The HVC is not without friends: some sections of the BJP and the Congress(I) are close to Sukh Ram. Whether this may influence the voting pattern or not, it will certainly play a role in the post-election situation.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

With all the constituencies witnessing multi-cornered contests, the ruling Congress(I) appears to gain substantially from the split in the non-Congress(I) vote.

THE ruling Congress(I) seems to have an edge over its rivals in Orissa. The question seemed to be whether the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) will take the second position in the State in the Lok Sabha elections.

The BJD, formed in December as a consequence of a split in the Janata Dal, has an alliance with the BJP and is contesting 12 of the 21 seats in the State. The Congress(I) has fielded candidates in all the constituencies. The Janata Dal is contesting 17 seats while its allies, the CPI and the CPI(M), are contesting two each. Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which has virtually no base in Orissa, is contesting 12 seats.

Infighting has given rise to the possibility of sabotage of the prospects of several candidates of the State's major Opposition parties. There were revolts in at least two BJP district units over the seat-sharing deal with the BJD. Party workers of Sambalpur and Dhenkanal staged dharnas demanding that the BJP contest these seats. The two seats, along with 10 others in coastal Orissa, were given to the BJD. State BJP vice-president Prasanta Nanda staged a dharna at the party headquarters protesting against the allotment of all the seats in coastal Orissa to a 'newly formed' regional party. Party workers have told State president Juel Oram and central observer, Pyarelal Khandelwal that they will not campaign for the BJD nominees.

Activists of the BJD are in an equally belligerent mood. Some leaders from western Orissa, led by party vice-president Anang Uday Singh Deo and general secretary Prasanta Acharya, accused Naveen Patnaik of 'selling out' the party's interests by conceding all but one seat in the region to the BJP. Singh Deo, one of the founders of the BJD, resigned from the party.

Six of the 12 BJD candidates were selected without any hitch. They are: Naveen Patnaik (Aska), Bhartruhari Mahatab (Cuttack), Prasanta Patsani (Bhubaneswar), Trilochan Kanungo (Jagatsinghpur), Braja Kishore Tripathy (Puri) and Tathagata Satpathy (Dhenkanal). Naveen Patnaik won the Aska seat on the Janata Dal ticket in a byelection last year.

Dissent has dogged the Janata Dal too. The party suffered a setback on January 30 when its national general secretary, Pravat Samantaray, joined the BJD. Arjun Sethi, State general secretary and candidate for the Bhadrak seat, had done so a day earlier. The BJD nominated Sethi for the Bhadrak constituency.

The Janata Dal has chosen Biju Patnaik's industrialist nephew Jagadananda Mohapatra for the Kendrapara seat, which was held by Biju Patnaik. Mohapatra, who joined the party after Naveen Patnaik broke away, has criticised his cousin for splitting the Janata Dal and aligning himself with a 'communal' party.

The Janata Dal has won the Kendrapara seat in every election, even when there was a Congress(I) wave. This time the seat may go to the Congress(I) with the anti-Congress(I) vote getting divided between the Janata Dal and the BJD.

The CPI and the CPI(M) are contesting the Aska and Jagatsinghpur seats and the Bhubaneswar and Berhampur seats respectively. CPI State secretary Abani Boral contests from Jagatsinghpur and CPI(M) veteran Sivaji Patnaik from Bhubaneswar.

The ruling Congress(I), which won 17 seats in 1996, stands to gain substantially as all the constituencies will witness triangular contests. The Congress(I) has nominated Jayanti Patnaik, Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik's wife, for the Berhampur seat, which was held by former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Mustafiz Ahmed, who left the Janata Dal, has been nominated for the Cuttack seat. The selection of candidates for these two seats put an end to a month of speculation.

The BJP won no seats in Orissa in 1996. It is trying to make inroads into the State, riding piggyback on the BJD. Kicking off its election campaign at Berhampur on January 30, Atal Behari Vajpayee promised to 'change the face of Orissa' if the BJP was elected to power. That the party did not attach much importance to the constituency was evident from the fact that no senior leaders, except two office-bearers of the State committee, were present at the Berhampore rally. Gopinath Gajapathi, former Congress(I) MP, is the BJP candidate for the seat.

Electioneering largely revolves around the name of Biju Patnaik, with various political parties claiming his political legacy or proximity to him. After Naveen Patnaik floated the BJD, Janata Dal leaders have been projecting Jagadananda Mohapatra as the inheritor of the Biju legacy.

Even the Congress(I) takes care not to make unfavourable references to Biju Patnaik, its biggest enemy since 1971 when he left the party challenging the leadership of Indira Gandhi. The BJP, which sensed the potential political use of his memory, was the first to invoke his name: at campaign rallies BJP leaders tirelessly referred to his contribution to the State's development.

Even Laloo Prasad Yadav, who addressed an RJD rally at Bhubaneswar, described Biju Patnaik as an architect of the United Front.

S.K. PANDE

The Bharatiya Janata Party is all set to check the Congress(I)'s chances of winning more number of seats.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party appears set to repeat its 1996 performance in Delhi. The question that remains to be answered is whether the Congress(I) can improve on its performance.

Thanks to media hype and the Sangh Parivar's strategy of door-to-door canvassing, the saffron party is ahead of the Congress(I). The Congress(I) campaign was also affected by the dilly-dallying of the leadership over the allocation of the party ticket. Party stalwarts such as H.K.L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar have opted out of the contest. However, the party hopes that its fortunes will improve once Sonia Gandhi campaigns in the capital.

The Congress(I)'s immediate problems began on January 28 when it was revealed that the names of Bhagat, Tytler and Sajjan Kumar did not figure in the list of candidates. The decision to drop them was the result of a tussle between Sonia Gandhi and Sitaram Kesri; the party leadership finally bowed to the signals from Sonia Gandhi. The Congress(I)'s apology for 'peration Bluestar and the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 was the first hint that Bhagat, who faces charges relating to the riots in Delhi, would be dropped from the list.

Bhagat had been re-admitted into the party, and it was widely expected that he would be fielded in East Delhi. In the event, a suggestion to nominate Bhagat's wife was also rejected. In the end, the winner was the BJP, which is obviously happy that it does not have to contend with the one-time strongman of the Delhi Pradesh Congress(I). In place of Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Tytler, Sheila Dixit (East Delhi), Deep Chand (Outer Delhi) and M.M. Aggarwal (Delhi Sadar) respectively will contest.

In the New Delhi constituency, former Lt. Governor of Delhi and Governor of Jammu and Kashmir Jagmohan (BJP) is pitted against R.K. Dhawan (Congress). In 1996, Jagmohan won the seat with a margin of 81,630 votes. In this round of elections, a close finish is on the cards. Sheila Dixit will take on the BJP's 1996 winner Lal Behari Tiwari.

In Chandni Chowk, Delhi's smallest constituency, J.P. Aggarwal, who has won the seat several times, faces Vijay Goel of the BJP. Also in the fray is Janata Dal MLA Shoaib Iqbal. He is likely to get substantial support from Muslim voters, which will make matters difficult for the Congress(I).

In Karol Bagh, Congress(I) member of the dissolved Lok Sabha Meira Kumar is pitted against Delhi Minister Raitwal. In South Delhi, Congress(I) MLA Ajay Makhen faces the BJP's Sushma Swaraj.

In Delhi Sadar, former Chief Minister Madan Lal Khurana faces Delhi Pradesh Congress(I) vice-president and industrialist M.M. Aggarwal. In Outer Delhi, Congress(I) corporator Deep Chand Sharma fights K.L. Sharma (BJP). K.L. Sharma defeated Sajjan Kumar in 1996.

In 1996, the Congress(I) won the Karol Bagh and Chandni Chowk seats and the BJP won the other five seats. The party's performance this time will indicate its prospects in the Assembly elections that are likely to take place soon.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

The HVP-BJP combine does not appear to have much of a chance of capitalising on the division of votes between the Congress(I), which has been revitalised by Sonia Gandhi's campaign in Rohtak, and the HLD(R)-BSP.

HE can barely speak for a minute at a stretch, and he admits that he is fighting his last election. Yet former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal threatens to undo the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance's ascendancy in Haryana. His performance on the campaign trail has given those who believed that the aging patriarch of Haryana politics was over the hill reason to think again. The Tau's Haryana Lok Dal (Registered) and its election partner, the Bahujan Samaj Party, until recently appeared certain to capture a large chunk of the State's 10 Lok Sabha seats. But Sonia Gandhi's foray into Rohtak last fortnight and the partial revitalisation of the State's faction-ridden Congress(I) apparatus might just transform the electoral outcomes in some key constituencies.

The battle for Bhiwani illustrates the election-eve tendencies in Haryana politics. Here, Chief Minister Bansi Lal's elder son Surinder Singh, a one-time Sanjay Gandhi follower, finds himself up against not only Devi Lal's grandson Ajay Chautala, but his own brother Ranbir Singh Mahendra. In the feudal world of Haryana politics, the family schism could well translate into electoral disaster for Surinder Singh. Indeed, many believe that Mahendra was fielded in Bhiwani as part of a quid pro quo between the HLD(R) and former Congress(I) Chief Minister Bhajan Lal. Bhajan Lal, marginalised within his own party, is waging a battle for survival in Karnal. His cause has been helped by the HLD(R), which has nominated a political lightweight against him.

Sonia Gandhi's visit to Rohtak, however, galvanised the Congress(I). The HVP-BJP alliance might still lose Bhiwani, but observers are not sure who will win. Although the HLD(R) campaign machinery is in overdrive, Mahendra's rallies and street meetings have begun to attract bigger crowds than before.

Similar developments could be crucial elsewhere too. The Sonia Gandhi factor, Congress(I) supporters argue, could tip the delicately poised scales in Rohtak in favour of State Congress(I) president Bhupinder Singh Hooda and in the process edge out Devi Lal. In Mahendragarh, which was once a BJP stronghold, the Congress(I) factions led by party nominee Rao Inderjit Singh and an important local MLA, Rao Narendar Singh, have made up, and the party is seeking to capitalise on the discontent among the peasantry to take on the HVP-BJP. And in Sirsa, former Union Minister Selja Kumari is desperately trying to get Sonia Gandhi to visit her constituency, hoping that this will bring together the factions in the local unit of the party.

None of this should, however, be interpreted to mean that the HDL(R)-BSP's position is under threat. Devi Lal and BSP supremo Kanshi Ram attracted large crowds, notably in Bhiwani on February 3 and in Fatehabad the next day. Kanshi Ram's attacks on the BJP's lack of political ethics were greeted with applause.

The HLD(R)-BSP combine has appropriated the populist platform of the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal in neighbouring Punjab. Promises of free power for farmers and the doubling of old-age pensions have attracted peasants who have been hit hard by liberalisation and the growing marginalisation of medium-sized landholders. The new vigour in the Congress(I) merely emphasises that the HLD(R)-BSP front's course could be less smooth than was expected a fortnight ago.

Significantly, few people suggest that the HVP-BJP combine has much of a chance of capitalising on the division of votes between the HLD(R)-BSP formation and the Congress(I). The alliance Government's lack of popularity has been caused by World Bank-inspired power and water tariff reforms, the failure of its prohibition policy, and high levels of taxation. Employees of the Haryana State Electricity Board have been on strike, reflecting the widespread anger among workers of State-owned enterprises. In this situation, the BJP's claim to represent honest, efficient governance cuts little ice with the voters.

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