A round-up from the States

Print edition : December 27, 1997

Political parties are using the Legislative Council elections, due on December 29, as an opportunity to test the waters before the Lok Sabha elections.

FOR the major political parties of Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the December 29 elections for 39 seats in the State Vidhan Parishad (Legislative Council) from the local bodies have come as an opportunity to test the waters before the Lok Sabha elections. Although only a little over one lakh voters are involved in the exercise, the Parishad elections will help them finetune their strategies for the bigger battle. Parties in U.P. today appear to believe that in the Lok Sabha elections, local and regional factors, rather than national issues, will weigh with the State's electorate.

This understanding is most pronounced in the strategy of the S.P. The S.P., the United Front (U.F.) constituent with the strongest presence in the State, has repeatedly asserted that it is an integral part of the Front and will accommodate the electoral demands of its allies. However, it will contest all the 39 Council seats; its argument is that no other U.F. constituent has a significant representation in the local bodies. The Janata Dal, which is unhappy with the S.P. decision, has fielded candidates for 21 seats. Significantly, the S.P. has not joined hands with the Congress(I), despite its reported willingness to have seat adjustments with that party in the Lok Sabha elections.

The BSP, despite its negotiations with the Congress(I), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Ajit Singh-led Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party for an electoral understanding in the Lok Sabha polls, has decided to go it alone in the Council elections. The BJP has given nine seats to the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC), a constituent of the BJP-led coalition government in the State.

The lists of candidates of the S.P. and the BSP indicate that the parties are keen to assess their strength among the communities that have gravitated towards them over the last two years. In the last Assembly elections, the BSP won a substantial number of seats by fielding candidates from the upper castes, such as Thakurs and Brahmins, as well as from the Muslim community. The party could use this upper-caste support to strengthen its Dalit base. Similarly, the S.P. won sizable sections of the upper castes, especially Thakurs, over to its side from the BJP. It did so by launching an agitation against what it called the "misuse" of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act by the BSP-BJP regime. The party believes that it has finally worked out a winning combination of Thakurs, Muslims and Yadavas.

United Front leaders at a rally organised by the Samajwadi Party in Lucknow.-SUBIR ROY

The BSP has fielded only one Dalit candidate for the Council. The others include eight Muslims and seven each from the upper castes, the Yadavas and the Kurmis. The S.P., which enjoys the overwhelming support of Muslims in the State, has nominated only four candidates from that community, while it has put up 14 from the upper castes.

The fact that the BJP has given a predominant position to Thakurs in its list of contestants reflects its keenness to find out to what extent it has won back the upper- caste support it lost to the S.P. The sharing of seats with the UPLC is also an experiment intended to assess its partner's capacity to add to the alliance's support.

Once the Council elections indicate the political leanings of the major communities, the parties can look for the right kind of allies and decide the number of seats for them in the Lok Sabha elections.

According to a BJP member of the Council, if the S.P. and the BSP find out early enough that they have not gained any substantial support from the upper castes, they would work out an arrangement between themselves and also with the Congress(I) as well as other U.F. components for the Council elections. "If that happens," he added, "the arrangement will continue for the Lok Sabha polls, with disastrous results for the BJP."

As of now, however, there are no signs of anti-BJP forces coming together. The S.P. leadership appears convinced that there has not been much erosion in its upper-caste support. During the run-up to the Council polls, the S.P. was able to win over some upper-caste leaders from the BJP, including former Allahabad Mayor Shyam Charan Gupta.

For the Congress(I), which was trounced in the last three elections in the State and is not part of any alliance, there is no option but to wait for the major players to complete the evaluation exercise. Its State leadership wants a broad alliance with both the S.P. and the BSP. Leader of the Congress Legislature Party Pramod Tiwari told Frontline that the ideal situation would be one in which both the S.P. and BSP leaderships put aside their differences and joined forces with the Congress(I). However, with its very limited mass base, the Congress(I) is in no position to compel the S.P. or the BSP to accept this formula.

The Left parties have not demanded any seats in the Council elections, but are clear in their commitment to fight the Lok Sabha polls as part of the S.P.-led U.F. Unlike the Janata Dal, which has practically no organisational apparatus left after its repeated failures in elections, the Left parties are not considered a liability by the S. P. The S.P. greatly values their contribution to the U.F.'s electioneering.

The political context of the Council elections has brought in some new problems for the BJP. First, the allotment of seats to the UPLC has caused resentment among some sections of the party. These sections fear that this will lead to more demands from its allies - the UPLC, Samata Party and the Janatantrik BSP - in the Lok Sabha polls. There are already indications that the Samata Party, with former Minister Kalpanath Rai poised to join its leadership, will demand five Lok Sabha seats. The UPLC also wants the same number of seats.

The insistence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that the agitations relating to Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi be part of the election agenda of the Hindutva combine has increased the bargaining power of its allies (see separate story). According to sources in the BJP, these parties, with a secular vote base, have told their senior partner that the pursuit of the Hindutva agenda will make it difficult for them to continue in the BJP-led front. "It is not as though they want to leave the alliance," a senior BJP leader told Frontline. "They are using it as a threat to extract concessions from us."

The argument that the BJP is contributing to criminalisation of politics has gained more strength with the inclusion in its list of Council candidates of at least three history sheeters who face charges of dacoity and attempt to murder. The BJP leadership's response is that winnability is a major criterion in the selection of candidates.

Another criticism the BJP faces is that in its quest to offset the S.P.'s newfound influence among Thakurs, the party is succumbing to pressure from the Thakur lobby. Leaders of the upper-caste group in the BJP, including Brahmin and Bania leaders such as Kalraj Mishra and Lalji Tandon, have reportedly raised this issue at party meetings. They allege that State BJP president Rajnath Singh, himself a Thakur, has established a Thakur-backward caste axis in order to sideline them. The fact that 16 of the 30 candidates of the BJP for the Council elections belong to the Thakur community has aggravated acrimony on this question. According to BJP insiders, if the trend persists in the Lok Sabha list, the BJP could face serious problems. Indications are that A.B. Vajpayee and other national leaders are working out ways to avoid such a situation.

To cap it all, there is the demand from a section of the BJP leadership, led by Vajpayee himself, to revive the alliance with the BSP for the Lok Sabha elections. Although the RSS and some sections of the BJP have ruled out the idea, the chances are that the demand will gain strength if the party fails to put up a good show in the Council elections.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

That the questions that now emerge in Kashmir involve the content of politics, rather than the mechanics of holding elections, reflects the change that has come about in just one-and-a-half years.

THE winter snow blanketing the Kashmir valley mirrors a political frigidity in the State. One of the reasons for the lack of excitement might be that the outcome of this round of Lok Sabha elections appears almost certain. The National Conference, which swept the 1996 Assembly elections, is expected to undo the damage it inflicted on itself by its ill-considered refusal to participate in the May 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Yet the silence on Kashmir's political stage masks the acute awareness of the State's political actors that the 1998 elections will be decisive to their future.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Six Lok Sabha seats are at stake in the State. Elections to three constituencies in the Kashmir Valley will have an obvious national significance. Anantnag, represented by Union Minister of State Mohammad Maqbool Dar, is almost certain to be taken by the National Conference, since Dar's Janata Dal did not win any of the constituency's Assembly segments in the subsequent Assembly elections. The Congress(I) is likely to suffer even more severe losses. The party is unlikely to show even a graceful resistance to the National Conference's ascendancy in the Srinagar constituency, which it was able to take by narrowly defeating the Janata Dal in the unique circumstances of 1996. The party's sole hope is in Baramulla, which the State party chief Ghulam Rasool Kar won by over 1,10,000 votes.

The three Lok Sabha seats outside the valley are similarly likely to hurt incumbents. The BJP, which secured the Udhampur-Doda seat in 1996, could suffer severe reverses if the Assembly elections are any indication. Vaid Vishnu Dutt's triumph then came in the context of a sharp communal polarisation through the Udhampur-Doda belt, but the National Conference's subsequent Assembly triumphs in this area suggest that secular politics continues to have a strong following here. Most segments of the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency, which the Congress(I) took in 1996, fell to the National Conference in the Assembly elections. Leh, which voted for the Congress(I) in the last Lok Sabha elections, switched loyalties to the National Conference in the Assembly elections.

In this context, developments within the Jamaat-e-Islami are likely to be very significant. The Jamaat's Amir (supreme head) Ghulam Ahmad Bhatt, who was released from jail recently, stunned observers by suggesting that the time had come to end armed struggle. Bhatt argued that the principal victims of violence were Kashmiris, and that the raison d'etre of armed struggle, to focus international attention on the Kashmir problem, had been achieved. Bhatt's remarks are of enormous significance, given the fact that the largest terrorist group active in Kashmir, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, is the Jamaat-e-Islami's armed wing. Last month, Shopian-based Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ghulam Ahmad Ahrar participated in an Army-sponsored peace rally at Kulgam. Preparatory meetings for this rally were attended by other Jamaat-e-Islami luminaries who included its former Amir, Haqim Ghulam Nabi.

While the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen has not responded to Bhatt's statements, their political import is clear. "The so-called moderates in the Jamaat," suggests a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, "have marginalised hard-liners like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, in the hope of keeping the political organisation alive even as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is destroyed." What political direction the Jamaat-e-Islami centrists may take is not difficult to decipher. During the 1996 Assembly elections, Jamaat cadres in several areas joined in campaigns by anti-National Conference politicians, notably those of the Congress(I). Such support could be vital for a party torn by struggles against the primacy of former Union Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his MLA-daughter Mehbooba Sayeed in its organisational apparatus.

These developments will be of particular import at the micro level if panchayat elections are held shortly, as Jammu and Kashmir Rural Development Minister Abdul Rahim has promised. The updating of electoral rolls and the delimitation of 23,000 panchayat constituencies have almost been completed, after which a mere 45-day notice will be needed to begin the poll process. One year after the State's most important encounter with democracy, the real business of politics is at last coming into being. That the questions that now emerge in Kashmir involve the content of politics, rather than the mechanics of holding elections in a terrorism-affected area, reflects the change that has come about in just one-and-a-half years.

S.K. PANDE

The State's traditional rivals, the Congress and the BJP, seem set for a cliffhanger of an election.

IN 1996, the Congress(I) won all the four parliamentary seats in Himachal Pradesh. Today the situation is vastly different. Congress(I) Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh wants simultaneous elections to the Assembly and the Lok Sabha to fight the "twin menace" of the BJP and the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC), formed by his erstwhile rival in the Congress(I), former Communications Minister Sukh Ram.

Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.-RAJEEV BHATT

The BJP is caught up in an internecine war between former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar and State party chief P.K. Dhumal. The trouble in the party came into the open after Shanta Kumar staked his claim to Dhumal's post. Shanta Kumar and Dhumal have traded charges and counter-charges, leading to RSS intervention. Right now, however, there is a truce. Despite the infighting, the BJP has been able to bring back into its fold the Rashtra Naya Party headed by Rajan Sushant.

The HVC, as yet an untried commodity in electoral politics, is gunning for the Congress(I). Sukh Ram has no dislike for the BJP, and if the HVC and the BJP come together, it could spell trouble for the Congress, particularly in the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency.

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kanshi Ram visited some parts of the State recently. If the BSP jumps into the fray, it may prove disadvantageous to the Congress. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI and the Samajwadi Party, which have pockets of influence, have held discussions.

As of now, the traditional rivals in the State, the Congress(I) and the BJP, seem set for a cliffhanger of an election.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

While the SAD-BJP alliance's campaign clearly reflects its worries about its future, it is unlikely that in the weeks to come, the Congress(I) will be able to transform itself into a credible secular alternative.

THE ELECTION campaign has begun with a bang in Punjab. Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's December 15 decision to contest the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat with the support of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has given life to what appeared to be an otherwise monotonous election. Gujral's decision, which followed a meeting he had with Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and Finance Minister Kanwaljit Singh, is certain to cause controversy. If the Prime Minister's apparent plea to an ally of the BJP for a safe seat is in itself curious, the Hindutva formation's response to the SAD's endorsement of Gujral's plea is certain to provide some entertainment. Meanwhile, complaints of persistent violation of Election Commission directives by the SAD-BJP Government have set the stage for a typically acrimonious Punjab election season.

Gujral's decision to contest from Jalandhar was in some senses predictable. Jalandhar was home to Gujral's family after Partition, and he won from the Lok Sabha constituency in 1989 with the support of the far-right Akali factions represented by Simranjit Singh Mann. His munificence as the Prime Minister to the SAD often irritated both the Left parties and the Congress(I). Gujral began by waiving Rs.8,500 crores the State Government owed to the Central Government. In October, attending a ceremony organised by the SAD to express its thanks, he laid the foundation stone for a Rs.120-crore Science City in Jalandhar, and announced support for potable water schemes and the proposal for a medical institute.

If at least some regional Opposition politicians criticised the rationale of Central munificence to a State Government in which the BJP is a partner, such criticism was generally expressed sotto voce. In the build-up to the Lok Sabha elections, however, criticism of the action is likely to grow. One reason for this might be the internal crisis in the Congress(I). With growing numbers of party heavyweights running a factional campaign against former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who supports the Sitaram Kesri faction, the party appears ill-equipped to take on the SAD-BJP alliance. During the last Lok Sabha elections, when the SAD had electoral adjustments with the relatively marginal BSP rather than the BJP, the Congress(I) won just two of the 13 seats, Gurdaspur and Amritsar. In the subsequent Assembly elections, the alliance of the Congress(I) with sections of the Communist Party of India failed to have any impact. As in neighbouring Haryana, persistent factional disputes in the Congress(I) have stood in the way of building an effective campaign apparatus.

Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The SAD-BJP alliance's record in office has been less than impressive. Barring a decision to waive electricity charges in rural areas, the alliance has met few of its promises. Even this decision has been criticised; farmers are in fact irritated by the failure to address the larger issue of chronic power shortages. In a desperate bid to check its growing unpopularity, the Government first announced free electricity for Scheduled Caste and backward class homes, a move which won a rap on the knuckles from the Election Commission. Apparently impervious to such criticism, the Finance Minister not only proceeded to implement the recommendations of the Fourth Pay Commission finalised in October, but also announced benefits to the employees to the tune of Rs.60 crores over and above the Commission's recommendations.

While the SAD-BJP alliance's campaign clearly reflects its worries about its future, it is unlikely that in the weeks to come, the Congress(I) will be able to transform itself into a credible secular alternative.

PRAVEEN SWAMI T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

The sole consolation for the ruling alliance in Haryana is that its rivals are in disarray.

HARYANA Chief Minister Bansi Lal could hardly have anticipated fresh Lok Sabha elections when his Government launched its power sector reforms early this year. There was a violent agitation by farmers against the harsh electricity tariff-related measures. Now his Haryana Vikas Party (HVP)-BJP alliance faces the Lok Sabha elections with an added handicap: its core urban trader constituency is seething at taxes imposed to pay for prohibition. The sole consolation for the alliance, which won seven Lok Sabha seats in 1996, lies in the fact that its rivals are in disarray. The party of former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal and his son Om Prakash Chautala - the party is renamed the Haryana Lok Dal (Rashtriya) or HLD(R) - has found that its change of name has not brought it acceptability. The Congress(I), for its part, is crippled by factional conflicts.

In the 1996 elections, while Bansi Lal's HVP won three and the BJP four of the 10 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress(I) won only two. The tenth seat went to an Independent.

Bansi Lal's problems began to unfold shortly after prohibition came into effect last July. Taxes imposed to compensate for lost revenue, and reports of the growth of a powerful illicit liquor mafia, ensured that the gains he made by keeping one of his election promises were eroded. Then farmers launched a prolonged agitation in several districts when power supply was stopped to pumpsets whose owners had failed to pay their bills. A cycle of police repression and further violence culminated in a series of Statewide strikes. Crucially, the State Government's performance in the fields of industry and employment generation has been less than spectacular, undermining Bansi Lal's reputation as the architect of the State's prosperity during his first term as Chief Minister in the late 1960s. The expulsion of Jai Prakash, MP representing Hissar from the HVP and the expelled leader's formation of a new party, the Haryana Gana Parishad (HGP) added to Bansi Lal's problems.

Chief Minister Bansi Lal.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Chautala's response to this crisis within the HVP was to use the farmers' agitation to pressure the BJP to switch sides. The 1996 Lok Sabha elections had made it clear that the Devi Lal-Chautala formation was simply in no position to command power without a major electoral ally. The aging patriarch of Haryana politics had himself suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Congress(I) leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Rohtak. However, the BJP chose to stand firm with the HVP. The BJP decision appears to have marginalised the HLD(R), which now finds itself bereft of not only an electoral ally, but also an electoral agenda.

While the Devi Lal-Chautala formation's performance in the 1996 Assembly elections suggested that it had at least in parts hung on to its core Jat constituency, the defeat of 14 of 15 Congress(I) State Cabinet Ministers and 11 other Ministers illustrated the massive defection of non-Jat voters to the HVP. Rather than learn its lessons, Bhajan Lal proceeded to engage Hooda in a bitter war for control of the party apparatus, an apparatus that in the meantime proceeded to wither away. For a party supposedly committed to combating the communal BJP, the Congress(I)'s course of action is mystifying, if sadly predictable.

If the pre-election chaos in the Congress (I) persists, the beneficiary will clearly be the HVP-BJP combine. Barring a minor dispute over seat-sharing, the alliance's electoral machinery appears to be moving smoothly, with Bansi Lal's early rallies reportedly attracting reasonable crowds. With a view to undoing part of the damage it had inflicted on the HVP's prospects, the State Government had withdrawn controversial octroi proposals and removed sales tax on some goods.

V. VENKATESAN

The Congress(I) may enter into an alliance with the RJP in order to prevent a division of the anti-BJP vote, although opinion in the party's State unit is divided on the issue.

ELECTIONS in Gujarat have essentially been a contest between the Congress(I) and the BJP. However, with the coming to power of the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) led by Shankarsinh Vaghela with the support of the Congress(I), a third party has gained importance in the State. Although the RJP is an electorally untested entity, Vaghela, with his political skills, may prevail upon the Congress(I) to allot a few constituencies to his party. The Congress(I) may enter into an alliance with the RJP in order to prevent a division of the anti-BJP vote, although opinion in the party's State unit is divided on the issue.

There are 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat. In 1996, the BJP won 16 seats and the Congress(I) 10. Those who advocate an alliance with the RJP believe that such an alliance will reverse the results this time.

The anti-alliance group is equally vociferous. This group includes PCC(I) president C.D.Patel, Congress Legislature Party leader Amarsinh Choudhury and former Chief Minister Chhabildas Mehta. Mehta said that in case of an alliance with the RJP, the Congress(I) faced the danger of losing its workers to the RJP in the constituencies allotted to the ally. This would harm the interests of the Congress(I) in about 50 Assembly segments, he said.

Shankarsinh Vaghela.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Both Patel and Mehta see ulterior motives in Vaghela's interest in holding simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly. Mehta said that if the Congress(I) conceded the RJP's demand for an equal share of Assembly seats, Vaghela might win 40 to 50 seats in the Assembly. The Congress(I) would then find it difficult to turn down Vaghela's claim to the post of Chief Minister, Mehta said. However, Bharat Solanki, MLA and son of former Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki, saw no reason to resist an alliance idea. He said that the Congress(I) would not join the Dilip Parikh Government and so "it will be ideal if we agree to share power after mid-term Assembly elections."

Although Vaghela continues to try to persuade RJP MLAs to accept mid-term elections, Dilip Parikh is unconvinced. With the Congress(I) being unlikely to endorse the dissolution of the Assembly, Vaghela's options are limited. If simultaneous elections are to be held, the Assembly must be dissolved at least a week before the notification of the Lok Sabha elections.

The BJP has decided to re-nominate the candidates who won the 1996 elections. However, the party president L.K.Advani is yet to decide on the State unit's request to contest from Gandhinagar or any other constituency in the State. Although it protested against the move to dissolve the Assembly, the BJP appears to be prepared to face Assembly elections.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

The BJP, under Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat's leadership, has apparently consolidated its position.

IN Rajasthan, the battle will be fought by the ruling BJP and the Congress(I), in the absence of a viable third force. The Janata Dal, with which the BJP had allied itself in 1989, has been a nonentity since 1991. Stability at the Centre and in the State will be highlighted as an election issue by the BJP whose Government led by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has completed four years in office.

The State has 25 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress(I) and the BJP took 12 seats each in 1996, and one seat went to Union Minister Sheeshram Ola of the Congress(Tiwari). Ola had left the Congress(I) on the eve of the elections.

The BJP has apparently consolidated its position. Shekhawat is in full control of the party. He will play a dominant role in choosing candidates and spearheading the campaign, notwithstanding his poor health. The BJP plans to woo the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Muslims. Many persons from these sections have been included in the 65-member election committee. Most of the votes of these communities have gone to the Congress(I) in the past. An attempt is also made to attract the traditional Jat vote of the Congress(I): 16 persons belonging to this caste have been taken into the election committee.

However, the death of six persons in police firing in Jaipur on December 16 may influence the elections to some extent. The police reportedly opened fire to contain a protest against encroachments on a piece of graveyard land. Both the protesters and the encroachers were Muslims. The Government came under attack from prominent Muslims, who alleged that the firing was premeditated and that the police had used the incident to attack people belonging to the minority community. The firing is bound to become an election issue. Other issues, such as the recent 30 per cent hike in bus fares and the rise in crimes against women, could also hurt the BJP.

R. PADMANABHAN

The Sena-BJP alliance hopes to improve on its 1996 record of winning 33 out of 48 seats; the Congress(I) hopes for a State-level understanding with the Samajwadi Party and the Republican Party of India.

IN Maharashtra, the prognosis at this stage seems to be that the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance will at least repeat its 1996 record of winning 33 of 48 seats. However, a considerable section of the middle class, at least in Mumbai, is disillusioned with the Sena. The Sena's ambition to become something more than a State-level force could also tell on the cohesion of the alliance.

Sharad Pawar.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The Congress(I), which took the remaining 15 seats last time, may be up against popular anger for its having created the crisis that led to the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. Its organisational disarray may add to its problems. The United Front is trying to get its act together; however, one cannot ignore the fact that it drew a blank in 1996. Moreover, the Front is divided on having an informal, State-level electoral understanding with the Congress(I).

The saffron alliance may contest all the 48 seats. The BJP will get the 18 constituencies that it won last time and the Sena 15 where it was the victor. The allocation of the remaining constituencies is subject to negotiation. In 1996, the BJP contested 28 seats and the Sena 20.

Indications are that the alliance will field almost all its sitting MPs. The BJP is likely to drop Banwarilal Purohit, who rebelled against the party. The Sena may drop one person if it decides to field former Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan. Sena spokesman Subhash Desai told Frontline that Seshan had sought the ticket. Contacted on the telephone, the Delhi-based Seshan told this correspondent twice: "I have exactly nothing to tell you."

The Congress(I) is working towards a State-level understanding with the S.P. and the Republican Party of India (RPI). Congress(I) leader Sharad Pawar told Frontline on December 15 that informal talks had been held with S.P. chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, RPI leader Prakash Ambedkar, and R.S. Gawai, a leader of the Athavale faction of the RPI. While Ambedkar makes no bones about his desire for an understanding with the Congress(I), State S.P. leader Hussain Dalwai said that his party was trying to persuade the other U.F. constituents that the Congress(I) should be supported in constituencies where the Front did not field candidates. The response to this appeal has been negative so far.

The consensus within the U.F. is that the Front should not spread its resources thin by contesting all the 48 seats. Tentative figures ranging from 30 to 36 seats are mentioned. On December 10, a State-level coordination committee was formed by the Janata Dal, the CPI, the CPI(M), the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), the RPI (Athavale), the S.P. and the Kamgar Aghadi (founded by Datta Samant).

As the Third Force did not win even one seat in the last election, the allocation of constituencies is bound to pose problems. Already, the Janata Dal's tentative list of 15 constituencies overlaps with the CPI(M)'s list of three.

M. MADAN MOHAN

The Congress(I) drew a blank in 1996. The prognosis for it is no better this time.

ALL the four major contenders in Goa - the Congress(I), the BJP, the Maharashtravadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP) - are dogged by problems. The ruling Congress(I) finds itself in a particularly desperate situation. It has virtually no achievement to its credit. The tussle between Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane and Deputy Chief Minister Dr. Wilfred Desouza continues unabated, and the induction of Shantaram Naik, a former MP, as State party president has made hardly any impact on the organisational front.

The Congress(I) was the worst sufferer in the 1996 elections. It lost both the seats (Goa has two Lok Sabha seats), one of which was its stronghold, Marmagao. Its candidate in Marmagao was Eduardo Faleiro, a Minister of State in the Narasimha Rao Government. The party's chances seem no better this time.

With Eduardo Faleiro reportedly preferring a Rajya Sabha berth to a Lok Sabha contest, the Congress(I) has to look for Marmagao. It could be Francisco Sardinha, a former State Minister. His opponent is likely to be formidable Churchill Alemao of the UGDP, who held the Marmagao seat in the dissolved House. Despite some loss of support, Alemao can still play the backward class card against Sardinha.

For Union Minister of State for Law Ramakant Khalap, who represented Panaji as an MGP member in the dissolved House, the going may not be as easy as in 1996. Khalap was in the political wilderness after his defeat in the Assembly elections when he was asked to try his luck in the Lok Sabha elections. He won and became a Minister, although he was the sole representative of the MGP in the Lok Sabha.

Goa may continue to disappoint the BJP. Its alliance with the MGP for the 1994 Assembly elections did not continue for the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. The position is not likely to change now.

V. VENKATESAN

Although the Congress(I) appears to be more cohesive than during the last elections with the return of Arjun Singh and Madhavrao Scindia, the party is groping for the right strategy.

MADHYA PRADESH has 40 seats in the Lok Sabha. In the dissolved House the BJP held 28 seats, the BSP two, and the Congress(I) 10. The Congress(I) won only eight seats in the last election, but improved its tally following the merger of Madhavrao Scindia's Madhya Pradesh Vikas Party with it. (The MPVP won two seats in 1996.) One BSP member, Budhsen Patel, quit the party and the Lok Sabha before its dissolution. Patel has since floated the Apna Dal and may field candidates in three constituencies adjoining Uttar Pradesh - Rewa (from where Patel won in 1996), Satna and Bhind.

Although the Congress(I) appears to be more cohesive than in 1996 with the return of senior leaders such as Arjun Singh and Madhavrao Scindia, the party is still groping for the right electoral strategy. Arjun Singh and Scindia are in favour of an alliance with the BSP, and so is Chief Minister Digvijay Singh. The rest of the leaders in the State unit have, however, opposed it. PCC(I) spokesperson Manak Agarwal said that there was no need for such an alliance since, he felt, the Congress(I) could win 30 seats on its own. He said that the party would re-nominate winners of 1996 and introduce new faces in rest of the seats. Congress president Sitaram Kesri has been authorised to select the candidates.

Agarwal said that the BSP in the State was in disarray. He said that Budhsen Patel's revolt showed that its vote bank was splintering. Dilip Singh Bhuria, who represented Jhabua in the dissolved Lok Sabha, said: "Only Digvijay Singh, Arjun Singh and Madhavrao Scindia want a tie-up. This not necessarily to help the Congress(I), but to save their own seats or the seats held by their kith and kin."

Digvijay Singh's son Laxman Singh was the Congress(I) MP from Rajgarh. Arjun Singh came third in Satna in the last election. In Gwalior, where Scindia romped home as the MPVP candidate, the BSP secured a substantial number of votes.

The BJP concedes that a Congress(I)-BSP may result in fewer seats for it, but expects a swing of the Congress(I)'s traditional upper-caste votes in its favour. State unit secretary Ajay Vishnoi argued that the BJP had suffered an erosion of its upper-caste vote bank because of its tie-up with the BSP in Uttar Pradesh. He said, "A similar fate awaits the Congress(I) in the coming polls in Vindhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh regions, if it aligned with the BSP." The BSP has reportedly demanded 18 seats. The Samata Party, the BJP's ally, has set its eyes on Balaghat and Mahasamund, which the Congress(I) won last time. The BJP, which came second in both the seats, is in no mood to oblige.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The RJD-Congress-JMM alliance appears a winning combination.

POLITICAL parties in Bihar have been forced to look for new alliances after the split in the Janata Dal and the formation of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The three major players in the State, the RJD-Congress(I)-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Soren) alliance, the BJP-Samata Party combine and the Left Democratic combination, are working out their strategies. Caste factors are likely to play a major role in the electoral outcome.

For the RJD, the release on bail of Laloo Prasad has come at the right time. The party plans to form a front with the Congress(I), the BSP, the JMM(S), the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) and the Bihar People's Party (BPP) to take on the BJP-Samata Party alliance. The combination of the truncated Janata Dal and the Left parties, including the CPI, the CPI(M), the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), faces a tough fight, with the prospect of three-cornered contests in most of the 54 constituencies.

Both the Left Democratic formation of the U.F., and the BJP-Samata Party combine are making efforts to win the anti-Laloo vote. The BJP, which captured 11 of the 15 seats in the last Lok Sabha elections in the Jharkhand region of southern Bihar, which is dominated by tribal people, is apprehensive about the RJD-JMM alliance. An alliance with the Congress and the JMM is likely to help Laloo Prasad thwart the BJP in southern Bihar and strengthen his position in 26 constituencies in north Bihar, where the Congress(I) has its strongholds. In 1996, the combined vote of the Congress, and the Janata Dal and its allies in north Bihar was over 50 per cent.

There has been no apparent shift in the political base of Laloo Prasad Yadav. Yadavas are loyal to the former Chief Minister, and there is no reason for Muslims to desert him as no secular alternative has emerged.

In any case, the RJD chief will be the central issue in the elections, with voters polarised for or against him. "We will sweep the polls," says Urban Development Minister Srinarayan Yadav, enthused by Laloo Prasad's decision to address rallies in all 54 constituencies.

The RJD, the Congress and the JMM(S) together won about 48 per cent of the vote in the l996 elections. The RJD, then fighting as the Janata Dal, won 31.88 per cent, while the Congress got 12.99 per cent and the JMM(S) 3.01 per cent. In comparison, the BJP-Samata Party alliance got just about 35 per cent of the popular vote.

In l996, the Janata Dal won 22 seats, the CPI four, the BJP 18, the Samata Party six, the Congress(I) two, and the Samajwadi Party and the JMM(S) one each.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The Left Front is the strongest force in the State; factionalism and disunity in the Congress will only help it further.

Chief Minister Jyoti Basu.-ANU PUSHKARNA

IN West Bengal, the ruling Left Front led by the CPI(M), which has been in power for more than 20 years, is making an extra effort to reach out to the people in order to overcome any disadvantage of incumbency it may have. In the 1996 elections, the Congress(I) improved its seat position both in the Assembly and the Lok Sabha. Although faction-ridden, the party proved in the 1996 elections that it was not a spent force. It increased its tally from five seats in l991 to nine in 1996 in the Lok Sabha and from 41 in 1991 to 82 in 1996 in the Assembly.

For the Left Front, election campaigns have always been issue-based. The Congress(I), on the other hand, has sought to fight polls by projecting personalities, without placing before the electorate positive programmes on the basis of which it could bring about socio-economic change. The BJP has hardly any standing in the State.

The year-long infighting in the Congress(I), which climaxed in the expulsion of Mamata Banerjee, MP and president of the State Youth Congress, and her associates from the party, has further weakened the party's chances. AICC spokesperson V.N. Gadgil announced Mamata's expulsion on December 22 shortly after she said in Calcutta that she was dissociating herself from the party. Gadgil said that the party high command had endorsed the Pradesh Congress Committee's decision to expel Mamata and others. The expulsion followed her announcement that the Trinamul Congress that she had formed recently was the real Congress and that she would not work with the present leadership in the State. Her announcement came two days after the party's central leadership appointed her the head of the State electioneering committee at the intervention of Sonia Gandhi.

Mamata said that she would field candidates of the Trinamul Congress in all the 42 constituencies. She welcomed the inclusion of the BJP along with other non-CPI(M) forces in the "Save Bengal Forum" that was launched by her.

Somen Mitra.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Factionalism and disunity in the Congress will certainly help the Left Front. If Mamata Banerjee succeeds in dividing the Congress vote, that will, of course, be of direct benefit to the Front. The CPI(M) wants to win back five of the nine seats it lost to the Congress(I) in 1996 and thus increase its tally of 23.

In 1996, the major Left Front partners, the Forward Bloc and the CPI, contested three seats each and won all of them, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) won all the four seats it contested. The sharing of seats among Front partners is likely to be on the same pattern as in the 1996 elections.

In 1996, the vote share of the combined Left Front was 47.4 per cent against the Congress's 39.5. The BJP, which got 11.6 per cent of the votes in the 1991 elections, could get only 4 per cent in 1996.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The major contest is between the AGP-led United Front, the Congress(I) and regional forces.The BJP is not in the reckoning.

FOR the ruling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam, there seems to be no option but to stay with the United Front in the coming elections. Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta has so far scoffed at suggestions that his party may ally with the BJP. "The United Front partners will stay together and there will be adjustments before and after the polls," he said at a press conference. Ruling out any tie-up with the BJP, Mahanta said that there was no question of the AGP having truck with the Congress(I) either.

The AGP and the BJP held negotiations for an alliance ahead of the Guwahati City Corporation elections in 1996. However, the talks were deadlocked over the choice of a deputy mayor. The two parties were then seen to have similar views on the question of migrants in the State. Later, the AGP moved away from its brand of regional politics after it received widespread support from the minorities. One reason for the goodwill among the minorities was that the AGP did not support the demand of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to scrap the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunals (IMDT) Act.

Joining hands with the BJP could erode the AGP's support base among the minorities. It would also alienate other U.F. partners, which include the CPI, the CPI(M) and the United People's Party of Assam (UPPA). Some AGP leaders are inclined to have a tie-up with the BJP, but with Mahanta and his close associates firm in their stand, this is unlikely to become the official party line.

A political realignment is on the cards; some parties have drifted away from the ruling alliance. The AGP's partners in the l996 elections, the People's Democratic Front (PDF) representing Bodo interests and the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) representing Kabri interests, have moved away from the AGP-led alliance. This happened because the Mahanta Government failed to settle issues concerning the Bodos and the Kabris.

In the l996 elections, the AGP and the Congress(I) got five seats each and the CPI(M), the BJP and the ASDC one seat each. The remaining seat went to an independent.

The AGP is worried. With the Chief Minister facing allegations in the Letter of Credit (LoC) scam in the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department and the CBI about to charge-sheet him, the party is trying to shift the focus to issues that can help it gain support. The move by Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, the former State Home Minister, once a close associate of Mahanta, to split the AGP and form a regional party is another development that may affect the AGP's chances at the hustings.

The issues before the electorate are corruption, development, insurgency and the allegation that the State machinery had been used harshly against dissent. The AGP will need to state its position clearly and distance itself from purely regional and divisive forces. The battle will mainly be between the AGP-led four-party ruling alliance, the Congress(I) and the emerging third force of regionalism. The BJP is not in the reckoning.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The Congress(I) continues to hold sway in the north-eastern States except Tripura and Manipur.

LOK SABHA elections in three north-eastern States, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, are to be held simultaneously with the Assembly polls. Assembly elections are due in Nagaland by March 17, in Meghalaya by March 1 and in Tripura by May 17. In Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, elections will be held only to the Lok Sabha.

Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Meghalaya have two seats each in the Lok Sabha, while Mizoram and Nagaland have one seat each. Going by experience, local issues form the campaign platforms in these north-east States. However, few of these issues are common to all the six States. The foreigners issue has generated some heat, but it is not on the agenda, except in indirect ways. One characteristic of the politics of these States is the strong presence of regional parties.

Since the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, fears of extremist violence have prompted special security measures in many parts of the north-eastern region. Of late, insurgency in Tripura and Manipur has reached higher levels in terms of the arms used, the training of militants and the organisation of their activities. There have been major ambushes and other violent incidents in these two States. Fresh infusion of armed insurgents from the training camps in Bangladesh has also been reported.

Politically, by and large, the Congress(I) holds sway over the region - it rules all except two States. (Tripura is ruled by the Left Front, and the breakaway group of the Congress(I) recently formed a Government in Manipur.) The Congress won eight of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the region in 1996.

The Congress(I) in Tripura suffered major setbacks in the Assembly polls in 1993 and the Lok Sabha polls in 1996 after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) charge-sheeted former Chief Minister Sudhir Ranjan Majumdar and 11 others for alleged irregularities in the allotment of medical seats in the State quota to students from outside the State between 1989 and 1993.

The failure of the State Congress(I) leadership to finalise an alliance with the Tripura Upajati Juba Samaj (TUJS), even after two rounds of talks, has affected political activity. The CPI(M) won 44 seats in the 1993 elections to the 60-member Assembly, and it captured both the Lok Sabha seats in l996.

Addressing a press conference in Imphal recently, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan said that his party would negotiate a seat-sharing arrangement with other U.F. constitutents in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the north-eastern States.

In Manipur, the fall of its Government headed by Rishang Keishing following a split in the party is certain to affect the Congress(I)'s chances in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. The new Chief Minister, Nipamacha Singh, assumed charge with the declaration that his party would enter into an alliance with the Left parties and other U.F. constituents.

While the prospects of the Congress(I) appear bleak in Tripura and Manipur, it might retain its Lok Sabha seats in Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, where the political situation has remained more or less unchanged since the l996 polls.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

With the formation of the Biju Janata Dal, Orissa will see new political alliances fighting the Lok Sabha elections.The Congress(I) is happy at the prospect of triangular contests in all constituencies.

WITH the breakaway Janata Dal group headed by Biju Patnaik's son Naveen Patnaik floating a new party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Orissa will see new political alliances fighting the Lok Sabha elections.

The BJD is all set to enter into an alliance with the BJP, which did not win any of the 21 seats in 1996. The Janata Dal refused to ally with the Left parties in the last Lok Sabha elections; it contested alone and won four seats. Two of these four MPs in the dissolved Lok Sabha, including Union Minister Dilip Ray, have joined the BJD. The truncated Janata Dal is now desperately trying to rebuild its relationship with the Left parties. Janata Dal leader Srikant Jena was in touch with Left leaders.

The ruling Congress(I), with 16 MPs, is in a comfortable position as non-Congress(I) votes are likely to be divided between the Janata Dal and the BJD-BJP combine. Perhaps it was the new political equations that prompted Congress president Sitaram Kesri to state that the Congress(I) did not need any ally in Orissa.

Addressing a rally in Bhubaneswar that was attended by Kesri, Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik described Orissa as a "citadel of the Congress". He said that his party, free from infighting, had been winning one election after the other - the 1995 Assembly polls, the l996 Lok Sabha polls, and the elections to the local bodies.

The Congress(I) rally in Bhubaneswar preceded rallies of other parties. The Janata Dal-CPI-CPI(M) combine has planned their rally on January 5, and this will be followed by the Biju Janata Dal's on January 7. The BJD's efforts are to ensure "one to one" fight against the Congress(I). However, the Congress(I) is happy at the prospect of triangular or multi-cornered contests in all constituencies.

The Janata Dal-CPI-CPI(M) combine is determined to contest all the seats along with its prospective allies, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Soren) and the Samajwadi Janata Party. The BJD-BJP front, which will possibly take the Samata Party as another constituent, will also field candidates in all constituencies. The Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party will contest some seats.

T. LAKSHMIPATHI

In the battle of nerves in Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu appears to have stolen a march on the rest.

IN Andhra Pradesh, the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and its principal rival, the Congress(I), are beset with problems. The leaders of both parties are cautious in their remarks, although Congress(I) Working Committee member Kotla Vijayabhaskara Reddy sees "a wave building up in favour of the Congress(I)", assisted by "the anti-establishment sentiment".

In the battle of nerves, however, Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu appears to have stolen a march on the rest. Even before the elections were announced, he confidently claimed that his party and its allies would win a minimum of 30 of the 42 seats. Those who know his political skills cannot treat his claims lightly.

Chandrababu Naidu has already completed one round of interaction with party functionaries from all the Lok Sabha constituencies. It helped him weigh the claims of aspirants for nominations from each constituency.

The TDP president has a well-oiled party machinery under his control. As for resources, he appears better placed than the Congress(I). He has also succeeded in shoring up the spirits of his party cadres and making his rivals feel that they are way behind him in the race. The Congress(I) has too many leaders; the TDP is under Chandrababu Naidu's full command, although group rivalries exist.

In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the TDP, in alliance with the CPI and the CPI(M), won 16 seats. The success was attributed mainly to the organisational skills of Chandrababu Naidu. The CPI won two seats and the CPI(M) one. In the battle for the political legacy of TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao (NTR), the faction led by NTR's widow N. Lakshmi Parvathi came a cropper, losing all the seats it contested. The Congress(I) won 22 seats. In the subsequent byelection for the Nandyal seat that was vacated by former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, the TDP emerged victorious.

The TDP maintained the upper hand in the Assembly byelections during the past two years, despite some unpopular government decisions, which included the increase of the price of subsidised rice, the levying of higher power tariffs on farmers and the relaxation of prohibition. The electoral gains have been so impressive that Chandrababu Naidu has seen them as the people's endorsement of his Government's actions.

The Congress(I) banks on a negative vote. Three years after it was almost decimated in the Assembly elections, it has regained a semblance of its earlier strength. The morale of its cadre is high as a result of the new-found camaraderie among its leaders. Two impressive rallies held at Nellore and Cuddapah brought the party heavyweights on a single platform. The party has emerged stronger after the rapprochment between Vijayabhaskara Reddy and the Rayalseema strongman, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.

The TDP's election campaign will highlight the State Government's work on the development front. Chandrababu Naidu proposes to build a pool of two lakh trained TDP activists within a month to be deployed in all constituencies. These persons will tell the people about the Government's efforts to bring in reforms. Surveys commissioned by the Chief Minister have reportedly indicated that the people have endorsed his "bold decisions" in the area of socio-economic development.

The talk of a third alternative has been in the air for quite some time, but nothing has crystallised so far. The BJP, which polled over 9 per cent of the vote only once in the State (in the 1991 Lok Sabha polls), is to have electoral adjustments with the NTR TDP led by Lakshmi Parvathi. It is planning a high-profile campaign. BJP general secretary M. Venkiah Naidu claimed that there was a perceptible change in the voters' mood. "They are looking for an alternative to both the Congress and the TDP. We shall fill the vacuum," he said. Film actress Vijayashanthi has offered to tour the State in support of the BJP.

PARVATHI MENON

The State prepares for a three-way contest, with Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti and S. Bangarappa's Karnataka Vikas Party complicating the political picture.

THE three principal political parties in Karnataka - the Janata Dal, the Congress(I) and the BJP - have an immediate opportunity to test their strengths in the elections to the 25 Legislative Council seats to be held on December 29. A total of 95,000 members of local bodies will participate in this. A little over 85,000 of them are gram panchayat members, who are key vote mobilisers for the Lok Sabha elections. The outcome of the Council elections will thus be an indicator of the popular support base of each party.

Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti and S. Bangarappa's Karnataka Vikas Party (KVP) have complicated the political picture. The Lok Shakti is electorally untested, and its high-profile president is desperately seeking an alliance with any party that will accept it. "We have two options before us," Hegde told Frontline. "We can either go it alone, or ally with either the Congress(I) or the BJP." He had talks with Congress president Sitaram Kesri, BJP president L.K. Advani and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav. Hegde has kept up psychological pressure on the Janata Dal with repeated calls to its MPs and MLAs to join his party.

The State Janata Dal, buffeted by attempts from Laloo Prasad, Sitaram Kesri and Hegde to split it, has thus far remained united. It will have seat adjustments with its United Front partners (the CPI(M) and the CPI). There is also the possibility that it may enter into seat adjustments with the KVP, which has a pocket of support in the Shimoga belt. (The KVP is the reincarnation of the Karnataka Congress Party, which won a Lok Sabha seat in 1996.) Janata Dal leaders are not unduly worried about the threat posed by Hegde and Laloo Prasad. "It is a fight between the Congress and Janata Dal," said president B.L. Shankar. The Janata Dal won 16 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the last election.

The Congress(I) has been infused with a new confidence. It recently won two by-elections to the Assembly. It hopes to win at least 20 Lok Sabha seats this time against five in 1996. "The wind is on our favour," PCC president Dharam Singh told Frontline. Although the national leadership of the party is ready for an alliance with the Lok Shakti, the rank and file appear to be averse to such an arrangement.

The BJP, which won six seats in the last elections, is already in a state of "war preparedness" according to Ananth Kumar, its all-India general secretary. The party's State election committee has met and the list of candidates will be finalised by early January.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR

The UDF and the LDF won an equal number of seats in the last Lok Sabha elections. Dissension in the Congress(I) could affect that balance this time.

IN 1996, when elections were held simultaneously to the Assembly and the Lok Sabha, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) returned to power in Kerala, and the LDF and the United Democratic Front shared equally between them the State's 20 Lok Sabha seats. Since then, the faction-ridden Congress(I) has been increasingly alienated from its alliance partners. The Indian Union Muslim League, smarting under alleged attempts by a group in the Congress(I) to implicate some of its leaders in a sex scandal, had begun playing the role of a "constructive Opposition" by significantly scaling down its anti-LDF posture. It was increasingly supporting the LDF Government's programmes and helped improve the LDF's prospects in many local bodies.

Soon after the Lok Sabha elections were announced, a substantial section within the IUML leadership seemed to favour friendship with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) after severing its ties with the Congress(I). But the IUML's inclusion in the LDF was clearly out of the question. A mere friendship had no tangible value for the IUML. Hence, by allowing another section within the party to be more vocal in opposing the offer, the IUML leadership used the potential for a friendship with the CPI(M) as a bargaining chip within the UDF during seat-sharing.

The question before the IUML was whether it should remain within the UDF, continuing its rivalry with the Left and ignoring its priorities at the national level, or reconsider its relations with the two Fronts.

The UDF is likely to face demands for seats from the Kerala Congress groups led by T. M. Jacob and R. Balakrishna Pillai. But what is certain to be a tough challenge for the UDF is the intense group struggles in the Congress(I) and consequent demands for seats by opposing groups. There are four factions in the Congress(I).

In contrast, the LDF presents a picture of relative cohesion, although for the CPI(M) the election has come in the midst of its State organisational elections. A significant development was the split in the only Kerala Congress group in the Left Front, the one led by Education Minister P.J. Joseph. The breakaway group joined the K.M. Mani-led faction, which is a UDF constituent. However, this will hardly have an impact on the elections.

The CPI, the second largest party in the LDF, faces the additional task of fighting three Assembly byelections. For the RSP which won the only Lok Sabha seat it fought in Kollam thanks to the popularity of its national general secretary, the ailing Irrigation Minister Baby John, a repeat of the victory has become difficult.

After a split in 1996, the Janata Dal is almost a single-leader party in Kerala. Its leader, M.P. Veerendra Kumar, has said in the past that he would not contest again or seek a ministership. The splinter group led by former Janata Dal State president Arangil Sreedharan has merged with Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti, which has now forged an alliance with the Indian National League (INL). But the INL and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), both formed with the intention of being alternatives to the IUML, have, after splits within and marginalisation in the 1996 elections, become spent forces, very much like the Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS) of former CPI(M) leader K. R. Gowri.

One of the tasks K. Karunakaran has taken upon himself is to woo back the social organisations of the Nair and Ezhava communities, the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam. Even if he succeeds in this, whether these organisations will influence the political decision-making of substantial sections of these communities remains certain.

Two prominent constituents of the UDF - the Congress(I) and the IUML - have one thing in common with the parties constituting the LDF: an overriding interest in countering the BJP. The BJP has never yet won a seat even to the Kerala Assembly.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

The DMK-led alliance in the State is confident of scoring over the AIADMK-led alliance.

TAMIL NADU has emerged as a bright spot for the United Front. The existing alliance, led by the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), has not only regained its cohesion, but also strengthened itself with the addition of two more national parties, the CPI(M) and the Janata Dal. The three principal parties in the original alliance, the DMK, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and the CPI, which in the 1996 elections shared among themselves all 39 seats in the State, are confident of scoring over the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-led combine.

Cracks that had developed in the alliance were rejoined when DMK president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi moved swiftly to get together with TMC president G.K. Moopanar. After a telephone conversation with the TMC president on December 12, Karunanidhi announced in a press statement: "The DMK-TMC alliance that was forged in 1996 will continue with the same vigour and gusto."

In 1996, the CPI(M) and the Janata Dal formed part of another front, led by Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) of V. Gopalasamy, who had broken away from the DMK. The Indian National League led by Abdul Latheef and the All India Forward Bloc led by Ayyannan Ambalam are already members of the DMK-led front. Welcoming the entry of the CPI(M) and Janata Dal into the alliance, CPI State secretary R.Nallakannu said: "Politics is shaping up well in Tamil Nadu."

The leaders of the alliance do not expect any insurmountable problem in allocating seats between themselves. In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the DMK won 17 seats, the TMC 20 and the CPI two. The CPI(M) has reportedly asked for two seats and the Janata Dal one; Karunanidhi foresees no hitch in meeting the demands of the alliance's constituents. He said that "it will be a mutual sharing of seats, not demanding and conceding." Alliance leaders hinted that the CPI(M) may get North Madras, a seat held in the dissolved House by the DMK's N.V.N. Somu, Minister of State for Defence in the United Front Government, who died in an aircrash recently, and Nagercoil, which was won by the TMC. They did, however, say that discussions were at "a preliminary stage".

Pitted against this powerful alliance, the AIADMK will have a tough fight on its hands. Its general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha has made the alliance led by her party more broadbased with the inclusion of a few parties, which fought against her in 1996. The most politically significant inclusion is that of the BJP. The Janata Party, the MDMK and the Pattalai Makkal Katchi (PMK) are the other allies of the AIADMK.

Jayalalitha and many of her ministerial colleagues, who face serious charges of corruption, are involved in difficult battles on the legal front as well. On December 16, the Madras High Court quashed an order that her Government passed in March 1992, renouncing the State-owned Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation (TIDCO)'s entitlement to zero-bonds in the blue-chip Southern Petrochemical Industries Corporation (SPIC).

By allying itself with the AIADMK, the BJP, which does not have much of a presence in the State, has damaged further its claims to be a party that fights political corruption. And, by including the BJP in her alliance, Jayalalitha has given a new status to that party, which has thus far remained isolated in the State's politics. Jayalalitha's calculation appears to be that if the BJP were to form a coalition Government at the Centre with the AIADMK as a constituent, the AIADMK could influence it to dismiss the DMK Government.

Although Subramanian Swamy has expressed his animosity towards the BJP often in the past, he declared that he was not averse to the BJP joining the AIADMK bandwagon. He stated that he would be content with the seats that Jayalalitha would offer to his party.

Among the political parties in Tamil Nadu, it is the Congress(I) that finds itself in a desperate situation. The BJP has beaten it in the race to join the AIADMK-led alliance. Congress Working Committee member K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy met Jayalalitha on December 11 and pleaded with her to revive the alliance between the two parties that existed in 1996. After the formation of the TMC, the Congress(I)'s presence in Tamil Nadu is negligible. Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) president K.V. Thangabalu was not even aware of Vijayabhaskara Reddy's meeting with Jayalalitha. The party's hopes of taking the TMC away from the DMK-led alliance, taking advantage of its differences with the DMK, have also crashed.

The relations between the DMK and the TMC soured within six months of the alliance's formation and its impressive success in the 1996 elections to the State Assembly and the Lok Sabha. Middle and lower-level leaders of the parties traded charges in the run-up to the local bodies elections held in October 1996. Later, some TMC leaders made public statements criticising the DMK Government. The TMC's silence on the observations in the Jain Commission's Interim Report that the DMK had encouraged the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) brought further problems to the relationship. The TMC was in a dilemma - was it to continue the alliance with the DMK or face the elections alone?

A senior TMC leader said that there was dissatisfaction among the people with the DMK Government over the increase in bus fares, the "inefficient" public distribution system, caste-related clashes in the southern districts, and the recent communal riots in Coimbatore. "We want to capitalise on all this and build up the TMC as an alternative to both the DMK and the AIADMK." But the leadership knew the weaknesses of the party as an independent political force; it also knew that the Jain Commission's interim report would have few takers in Tamil Nadu.

When the Congress insisted in the wake of the Jain Commission Report that the DMK Ministers at the Centre be dropped, Karunanidhi was firm that the DMK would rather face the elections than agree to the jettisoning of its Ministers. Moopanar, however, was keen to avoid elections.

It was against this background that Moopanar said on December 11 that his party had "the option of staying away from the elections." "I have not broken the alliance with the DMK," he asserted, and said that it was Karunanidhi who had said that the DMK executive would "review" the alliance.

Moopanar said that he was "hurt" and that he was looked at with "suspicion" because he was a former Congressman. This was in spite of the fact that the TMC stood with the United Front in all its decisions, he said.

Moopanar, however, ruled out any alliance with the AIADMK. His party was formed on the eve of the 1996 elections in protest against the decision of Congress(I) president P.V. Narasimha Rao to align with the AIADMK.

Karunanidhi acted quickly to assuage the feelings of Moopanar. He sent his Electricity Minister, Arcot N. Veerasamy, to meet Moopanar. A day later, Karunanidhi spoke to him over the telephone. Earlier, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, former Prime Minister V.P. Singh and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu were reportedly active in bringing about an rapprochement between the two.

Karunanidhi soon declared that not only had the problems between the two parties been sorted out, but "a full stop has been put to the propaganda that the relationship between the two parties has broken down."

Campaigning is yet to get under way. AIADMK treasurer Sedapatti R. Muthiah said the AIADMK would flag off its election campaign at its silver jubilee conference, which will be held at Tirunelveli from January 1 to 3.

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