The phase of alignments

Print edition : January 24, 1998

With less than a month for polling to begin, the major political parties were yet to firm up alliances and finalise strategies, yet the election scene was hotting up at many levels. A round-up from the States.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

The results of the January 11 Uttar Pradesh Legislative Council elections are expected to lead the three major parties in the State - the BJP, the S.P. and the BSP - to rethink their strategies.

"THE results of these elections cannot be taken as reflective of anything." This evaluation by Lalji Tandon, senior BJP leader and Minister in the Kalyan Singh Cabinet, after voting for 39 Legislative Council seats was over on January 11, indicated the BJP's apprehensions about the outcome of the exercise. The results, however, surpassed its expectations, and then the State leadership sang a different tune. "The fact that the BJP has made major gains even with the help of an electoral college formed during the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) shows our growing acceptance. This is the forerunner of the spectacular victory that we will have in the Lok Sabha polls," Chief Minister Kalyan Singh said. The BJP won 25 seats and the S.P., which hoped to win at least 20 seats, won 11. The Congress(I) and an independent candidate won one seat each. The BSP drew a blank.

The S.P. complained that the Kalyan Singh Government had misused the official machinery and cited the announcement regarding the grant of Rs. 250 crores to the local bodies four days before the polling date that was fixed originally, December 29. The Election Commission intervened and postponed polling to January 11. The BSP also made similar charges; it demanded that the Council elections be held again after the Lok Sabha elections.

Controversies notwithstanding, the results will lead the three major parties - the BJP, the S.P. and the BSP - to rethink their strategies. The BJP, which planned to give 10 Lok Sabha seats to its coalition partners such as the Samata Party, the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC) and the Jantantrik BSP, might take a tough stand now. The Samata Party has demanded 10 seats and the UPLC 15. The BJP was apparently willing to allot four seats to the Samata Party and six to the UPLC. Now it may reduce the seat share of its allies.

Mayawati addressing a rally in Meerut.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The S.P., which wanted to contest 75 of the 85 Lok Sabha seats, is bound to face greater pressure from other United Front constituents. Before the Council results were announced, the Janata Dal had warned the S.P. and its leader Mulayam Singh Yadav not to adopt a "big-brotherly " attitude. The party wanted to contest at least 20 seats. The S.P. argued that the Janata Dal's claim was unjustified as the party did not have an organisational base in the State. A senior S.P. leader told Frontline: "One can understand the Janata Dal claiming the seats in which it came second at least. But asking for seats where it was a poor third or fourth is ridiculous." The S.P. might be forced to resort to a climbdown now.

The chances of the Congress(I) entering into a formal alliance with the S.P. or the BSP were negligible. However, the enthusiasm generated in the Congress(I) cadres by Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign has improved the Congress(I)'s position.

Kalyan Singh.-SUBIR ROY

Kalyan Singh has gained the most from the Council polls. During the run-up to the elections, many BJP leaders opposed to him estimated that the party would not win more than 17 seats. Kalyan Singh himself reportedly accepted this estimate. According to BJP sources, it was this estimate that compelled him to sanction Rs. 250 crores to the local bodies.

The BJP feared that the postponement of the polls would affect its chances. The party unleashed a campaign accusing the Opposition parties of trying to scuttle its efforts to decentralise development. This campaign seems to have worked. The results also show that the BJP's support base among the upper castes has not eroded much.

The Council elections have given a fillip to the BJP campaign for the Lok Sabha polls. The question is what the secular parties will do to neutralise this advantage.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

Even as the alliance led by the DMK acquired greater cohesion and unity of purpose, the AIADMK-led alliance experienced many a hiccup.

ELECTIONEERING in Tamil Nadu picked up momentum by mid-January with the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam(DMK) and its principal ally, the Tamil Maanila Congress(TMC), closing ranks to take on their rival, the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK)-led alliance. Film actor Rajnikant brought cheer to the combine by throwing his weight behind it. Sonia Gandhi, who launched the Congress(I)'s campaign at Sriperumpudur, provided some early excitement.

The DMK-led alliance acquired greater cohesion and a sense of unity of purpose after the presidents of the DMK and the TMC, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and G.K. Moopanar respectively, met after they held a series of discussions with the district-level functionaries of their parties. They explained to the local-level leaders why the AIADMK-led alliance, which included BJP, should be defeated: the "corrupt" AIADMK should not be allowed to regain strength, and the "communal" BJP should not be given room to grow in the State. The major point of contention between the DMK and the TMC, the sharing of seats, was also resolved, with Karunanidhi conceding that the TMC could not be compelled to accept fewer than the 20 seats it contested in the 1996 elections. (In 1996, the DMK, the TMC and the Communist Party of India, also a part of the alliance, together won all the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu. The TMC won 20, the DMK 17 and the CPI two.)

However, some problems remained to be sorted out. The needs of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Janata Dal, both new entrants into the alliance, had to be accommodated. The CPI(M) has reportedly given a list of five seats from which it would like to be allotted two. Smaller parties such as the Indian National League, the Muslim League, the AIADMK faction led by S. Tirunavukkarasu and the MGR Kazhagam of R.M. Veerappan also asked for one seat each.

Moopanar was not inclined to accept the view that his party would have to forgo its share of seats to accommodate these claims. Informed sources said that the party feared defection to the Congress(I) by those who were MPs in the dissolved House if their seats were surrendered to the alliance partners. This possibility had increased after Sonia Gandhi started campaigning for the Congress(I).

As the campaign progresses, what worries almost all parties most is the lack of enthusiasm among the people. A TMC leader said, "People have no interest in these elections. There is no emotion. There is no wave."

What convinced the TMC cadres to accept the inevitability of continuing the alliance with the DMK was Moopanar's tour of 32 Lok Sabha constituencies for four days from January 10. The relationship between the DMK and the TMC came under strain during the panchayat elections in October 1996. The TMC's perception that the DMK did not back the candidature of Moopanar for prime ministership after H.D. Deve Gowda's resignation in April 1997 worsened the relations. Moopanar pointed out to the party's cadre that the DMK had made no serious mistakes in 20 months of its rule. Any shortcomings, he told them, should not be exaggerated. He cautioned them against the BJP's communal agenda. He also reminded them of AIADMK's record of corruption.

DMK leaders M. Karunanidhi (left) and K. Anbazhagan (right) with TMC leader G.K. Moopanar.-S. MAHINSHA

The response to Moopanar's tour was "spontaneous", the leaders claimed. The presence of a large number of Rajnikant fans at his meetings further enthused them.

At his meetings with DMK leaders from the districts, Karunanidhi said DMK 's "self-respect" was at stake in the Lok Sabha elections. He pointed out that AIADMK-BJP alliance posed a challenge to the ideology of E.V. Ramaswamy and C.N. Annadurai, the founders of the Dravidian movement, which has secularlism as its cornerstone. Karunanidhi alleged that Jayalalitha was sowing the seeds of communalism in Tamil Nadu. Rajnikant's declaration of support boosted the combine's morale.

Meanwhile, the AIADMK-led alliance experienced many a hiccup. This was despite the fact that AIADMK had a head start, with its general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha identifying the party's allies quite early and vigorously launching its election campaign at its silver jubilee conference at Tirunelveli from January 1 to 3. The seat-sharing talks ran into difficulties, when the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) demanded one seat more than the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the BJP unilaterally announced its list of candidates. V. Gopalsamy, MDMK general secretary, was reportedly piqued that his party would only get the same number of seats (five) as the PMK although the latter was a late entrant into the front. The MDMK has been with the AIADMK since April 1997.

While it was agreed that the AIADMK and its allies would simultaneously announce their seat-sharing formula on January 19, the BJP jumped the gun and named the candidates for four seats. This angered Jayalalitha, and the BJP apologised to the AIADMK.

The PMK faced a revolt within. Prof. A. Dheeran, its president, opposed the alliance with the AIADMK and he was expelled from the party. He convened a rival general body meeting. There was a sense of regret in the AIADMK circles over the early rejection of the overtures from the Congress(I), which was a "miscalculation" that Sonia Gandhi would not campaign for the Congress(I).

The Tamil Nadu Congress Committee was still looking around for allies. Although Sonia Gandhi flagged off the Congress campaign on January 11 at Sriperumpudur, it failed to make an impact.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR

The CPI(M)'s reiteration of its decision against any alliance or understanding with communal forces caused interesting changes on the election scene in Kerala.

LONG-TIME rivals in the Congress(I) in Kerala, A. K. Antony and K. Karunakaran, have announced that they have sunk their differences. It could prove to be shaky, election-eve reconciliation, but the coming together of the two has alarmed a number of leaders in their own party including PCC(I) president Vayalar Ravi, until recently a Karunakaran supporter, who hoped to further their prospects by taking advantage of the rivalry between the veterans.

Both Antony and Karunakaran have called for unity within the United Democratic Front (UDF), of which the Congress(I) is the leading constituent. Karunakaran has initiated steps to win back "those who had strayed" away from the UDF (meaning, the Nair Service Society, or the NSS, the social organisation of the sizable Nair community) and also expand the UDF by admitting "more partners" (read the Indian National League of Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait and the People's Democratic Party of Abdul Nasser Mahdani, who led the banned Islamic Seva Sangh).

The decision of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at its recent State conference against any alliance or understanding with communal and caste forces has caused interesting changes on the State's election scene (story on Page 49). The Muslim League, which had moved away from the Congress(I), particularly the Karunakaran group, and indicated its willingness to have an understanding with the CPI(M)-led ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), realised that such an alliance was no longer possible. Although the League was confident of winning the two Lok Sabha seats in the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district on its own strength, it was worried about its prospects after the election, particularly when the Congress(I)'s chances at the Centre appeared bleak. However, once the option of an understanding with the CPI(M) was closed, it called for the unity of all Congress factions and presented a conciliatory face to the Karunakaran group.

A reconciliation with the League (some of its leaders had played a major role in Karunakaran's replacement with Antony as Chief Minister in 1995) was beneficial for Karunakaran and his group, given the League's potential to scuttle the prospects of Congress(I) candidates in Muslim-dominated areas. The League had played a role in the defeat of Karunakaran's son and former member of Parliament K. Muraleedharan in 1996 in Kozhikode, which has a large Muslim population.

Even though he is pleased with the turn of events, Karunakaran has been trying to bring the League's rivals, the INL and the PDP, into the UDF, to "expand the Front's base". The INL and the PDP were eager to ally themselves with either the LDF or the UDF, but the bargaining power of both was drastically reduced by the CPI(M)'s decision. Efforts made on behalf of Karunakaran to admit at least the INL into the UDF met with resistance from the Muslim League. The League would rather have the INL merge in the parent party. This issue became another point of contention within the Opposition Front.

The NSS had withdrawn its political wing, the National Democratic Party (NDP), from the UDF soon after Antony replaced Karunakaran as Chief Minister. At the time of the general elections of 1996, the NSS' alienation from the Antony-led UDF was complete. Following an incident of alleged desecration of NSS founder Mannath Padmanabhan's memorial by P.V. Narasimha Rao's security personnel (during his visit to Changanassery), an agitated NSS leadership offered unconditional support to the LDF in the elections. This decision was intended mainly to spite Antony, allegedly at the behest of Karunakaran. Now, as a gesture that marks his reconciliation with Antony, Karunakaran is trying to woo the NSS back to the UDF. The NSS leadership too has probably realised that it was a political blunder to have supported the LDF without demanding anything in return.

E.K. Nayanar (left) and A.K. Antony (second right) greet V.P. Ramakrishna Pillai (right) of the RSP before he was sworn in Minister in Thiruvananthapuram on January 7.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

As for the CPI(M), its State conference was an event which helped it mobilise its cadres and supporters. However, the defeat of some of its prominent leaders in the election to the State Committee has been interpreted by the Opposition as result of "groupism" in the party. But the fact is that the party, unlike the Congress (I), remains a disciplined organisation.

The CPI, the second largest party in the LDF, has to fight three Assembly byelections in addition to the battle to retain its two prestigious Lok Sabha seats, Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram.

The RSP has to defend its only Lok Sabha seat, Kollam, without the help of its senior leader, Baby John, who is ailing. Baby John's replacement with Ramakrishna Pillai in the State Cabinet has caused heartburn within the party.

There was a split in the Kerala Congress (Joseph), another constituent, recently. However, overall, there are no signs of divisions within the LDF that could seriously affect its prospects. Its only challenge remains the possibility of unity in the UDF, especially among the Congress(I) factions.

The BJP has taken up the almost impossible task of winning at least one seat from Kerala. It has made maximum use of the ongoing agitation by a section of sanyasis of the Sivagiri math, significantly, the fast by former math president Swami Prakasananda (which was, however, withdrawn at the instance of the High Court when it entered the 30th day on January 15).

The way the LDF Government deals with the sanyasis's demand to return to them the administration of the math could become crucial for the LDF.

PARVATHI MENON

The BJP's hopes to benefit from the alliance with the Lok Shakti may be belied, for the fact that Lok Shakti leader Ramakrishna Hegde now has to defend the ideological position of a party that he resolutely opposed in the past may not go down well with even his supporters.

WITH the major political parties in Karnataka having finalised their alliances, the electoral process in the State entered the second phase. The lists of candidates were almost finalised, and campaigns were formally launched. While the Congress(I) chose the National College Grounds in Bangalore as the venue for Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka Vadhra to launch its campaign, the Janata Dal kicked off its campaign in a rural setting, at Hoskote, 20 km from Bangalore. On the afternoon of January 15, the Bangalore-Hoskote road was jammed with vehicles ferrying people for the two public meetings - the vehicles carrying Congress workers moving in one direction and those carrying Janata Dal activists in the other direction.

The election scene became clear with the formal announcement of an alliance between Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti and the BJP. Three political formations are in the fray - the United Front, with the Janata Dal as its biggest constituent and including parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist); the Congress(I); and the BJP-Lok Shakti combine. Former Chief Minister S. Bangarappa's Karnataka Vikas Party (KVP) was still negotiating with various parties, including the Janata Dal.

Lok Shakti leader Ramakrishna Hegde with BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee at the latter's residence in New Delhi.-RAJEEV BHATT

The BJP-Lok Shakti alliance is the new factor on the scene. There is a sense of euphoria in the BJP and in a section of the Lok Shakti over the alliance, and this is played up by a section of the media. The BJP has offered the Lok Shakti 10 seats - seats where BJP candidates performed poorly in previous elections. These were likely to be Bellary, Bagalkot, Chikkodi, Dharwad (South), Koppal, Bangalore (North), Chickballapur, Chitradurga and Chamarajanagar, and either Raichur or Hassan.

The Lok Shakti's decision to ally with the BJP gave rise, almost immediately, to a strong undercurrent of opposition from the pro-Congress faction within the Lok Shakti and from Hedge's friends within the Janata Dal. R.V. Deshpande, Minister for Major Industry in the J.H. Patel Government and long-time supporter of Hegde, was among the first to express his disappointment. Also disappointed was J.H. Patel himself, who had recently invited Hegde to rejoin the Janata Dal. The State Lok Shakti secretary Abdul Samad Siddiqui, Mysore district president Vedanta Hemmige, and the president of the Gulbarga Zilla Parishad were reportedly thinking of leaving the party. And the exodus from the Janata Dal to the Lok Shakti that Hegde predicted has not happened, However, two senior Janata Dal leaders - P. Kodandaramaiah, who was Member of Parliament from the Chitradurga constituency, and Ajay Kumar Sarnaik, Minister of State for Sports and Youth Affairs in the J.H. Patel Ministry - have announced their decision to leave the Janata Dal. Their defection was, in any case, expected.

In the BJP's calculations, the alliance with Hegde will benefit it in two ways. First, the association with a leader whose stature in the State's politics was built on his secular and anti-Congress credentials will give the BJP a certain secular electoral acceptability and help it occupy the space created by the disintegration of the Congress(I). Secondly, with the Lok Shakti as its ally, the BJP hopes to break into constituencies where it has had no presence. However, there are chances of both these calculations going awry. The Lok Shakti is electorally untested and organisationally weak in many of the constituencies it asked for. In fact, in the Old Mysore region, which emerged as a Janata Dal stronghold in the last elections, the Lok Shakti will be pitted directly against the Janata Dal. With even the 'hidden' support for Hegde in the Janata Dal now uncertain, the Lok Shakti's chances in these constituencies appear to be particularly weak. Secondly, Hegde defending the ideological position of a party he so resolutely opposed in the past may not have the same kind of appeal he once had among voters.

The Janata Dal, which emerged as the strongest party in the 1996 elections by winning 16 seats and 34.3 per cent of the votes, will fight this election on a weaker foundation. The incumbency factor has affected the image of the party. The Hoskote meeting was attended by H.D. Deve Gowda, S.R. Bommai, State Janata Dal president B.L. Shankar, Deputy Chief Minister Siddaramiah and several Janata Dal Ministers and district leaders.

The party's strategy of selecting strong candidates with independent bases in their constituencies paid off in the last elections. Several State Ministers were asked to resign and contest the Lok Sabha elections. This strategy was expected to be employed this time as well. R.L. Jalappa, former MP from Chickballapur and a political rival of Deve Gowda, had not decided whether he would contest as a Janata Dal candidate. Indications were that he would join the Congress(I). Deve Gowda was likely to contest from Hassan.

Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel.-T.L. PRABHAKAR

The success of U.F. rule at the Centre, short though it was, will form the basis of the U.F. campaign. This time the U.F. is also expected to appeal to the support bases that parties other than the Janata Dal have in the State, especially the support of the sizable Tamil and Telugu-speaking population. The U.F. constituents in Karnataka planned to set up a campaign committee. The four issues that would form the core of their campaign are communalism, federalism, corruption and pro-people economic policies.

Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign has infused the much-needed enthusiasm into the Congress (I). The Congress' vote share slipped from 42.24 per cent in the 1991 elections to 30.3 per cent in 1996, the first time it was decisively rejected in a Lok Sabha election. The Congress sees its performance in the recent Legislative Council by-elections, in which it won 10 of the 25 seats, as an indication of things to come. It is also encouraged by the fact that there have been no defections from the party to the BJP. All the five Congress(I) candidates, whose nominations have been announced, were members of the dissolved Lok Sabha.

V. VENKATESAN

Even after the BJP announced its first list of candidates, which includes party president L.K. Advani who will contest from Gandhinagar, the seat-sharing talks between the Congress(I) and the RJP remained deadlocked.

ELECTIONS to the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly are scheduled to be held simultaneously in Gujarat on February 28. The last date for filing nominations is February 4.

The BJP announced its first list of candidates for the Lok Sabha elections on January 12. Party president L.K. Advani, despite his much-publicised reluctance to contest the elections, agreed to fight from Gandhinagar. Atal Behari Vajpayee won the seat in the 1996 general elections. After he resigned from the seat (he opted to retain Lucknow, the other seat he had won), Vijay Patel, son of a former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, won the seat in the byelection. According to the BJP's Gujarat unit, Vijay Patel may be given the ticket to contest an Assembly seat.

Advani contested and won the Gandhinagar seat in the 10th Lok Sabha after Shankarsinh Vaghela, who had held the seat in the 9th Lok Sabha elections, was shifted to Mehsana. Advani did not contest the 11th Lok Sabha elections on "moral grounds", since the Central Bureau of Investigation was about to charge-sheet him in the hawala case. However, with the trial court quashing the charge-sheet against him, he decided to re-enter the electoral arena.

The BJP, which won 16 of the 26 Lok Sabha seats in the previous elections, announced candidates for 15 seats in the first list. The party was expected to confirm the candidature of Chandresh Patel, who won from Jamnagar in 1996, and replace Chandubhai Deshmukh, who won from Broach. (Deshmukh declined to contest on grounds of poor health.) Kashiram Rana is contesting from the Surat Lok Sabha constituency, from where he was elected in 1996. Rana vacillated between the Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela groups during the split in the State BJP unit in 1996; however, he finally chose to stay with the BJP. His renomination is considered to be a reward for not having deserted the party despite his pro-Vaghela and anti-Keshubhai Patel stand.

The BJP has three contenders for the post of Chief Minister - former Chief Ministers Keshubhai Patel and Suresh Mehta and Ashok Bhatt. However, both Mehta and Bhatt have reportedly consented to back Keshubhai Patel for the post. According to the party's State unit, their decision was in deference to Advani's wishes. In Advani's view, if the party did not project Keshubhai Patel as the chief ministerial candidate - as it did in the 1995 Assembly elections - the situation would be exploited by its adversaries.

However, the move to project Keshubhai Patel as the Chief Minister has ominous portents for the party. Although he enjoys the support of the Patel community, he has alienated leaders belonging to other communities. More important, projecting him may result in a polarisation between Patel and non-Patel voters. In that event the BJP may lose some of the seats it won in 1995.

Talks between the Congress(I) and Vaghela's Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) over the sharing of seats had not made much headway. The two parties had agreed to contest the seats held by them in the dissolved Assembly. However, a formula for the remaining seats eluded them. The Congress(I) and the RJP held 46 seats each in the 182-member Assembly. The BJP had 121 seats before the split. There were 15 independent members.

The Congress(I) was expected to contest all the 10 Lok Sabha seats it won in 1996. It was prepared to leave only five or six seats for the RJP.

The RJP is not keen to contest a large number of Lok Sabha seats. However, it declared that it would contest 110 Assembly seats and leave the rest to the Congress(I). State Congress(I) leaders were against ceding the majority of Assembly seats to the RJP, and were expected to bargain hard. Leaders of the RJP admitted in private that the party was unlikely to win more than 10 Assembly seats if it did not have an alliance with the Congress(I). According to them, if there was an alliance, the party would win about 20 seats.

According to Niranjan Tolia, former political adviser to Vaghela (who has since fallen out with him), the RJP is unlikely to win any Lok Sabha seat. In spite of its poor prospects, the party was unwilling to let the Congress(I) emerge as a senior partner in the alliance for the Assembly elections. Tolia said that it would be difficult for the RJP and the Congress(I) to share the seats amicably. Even while holding talks with the Congress(I), Vaghela was negotiating with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who supports him in his campaign against the BJP.

The RJP splinter group, the RJP(Atma Ram), was planning to merge with the Janata Dal, a party which has no presence in the State. This move came in the wake of the BJP's reluctance to give the ticket to the RJP(A)'s 16 MLAs in the dissolved Assembly. Keshubhai Patel had promised the BJP ticket to Atma Ram Patel and other former MLAs of his faction. However, the leadership backtracked in the face of protests from within the party against appeasing the rebels who returned on the eve of the dissolution of the Assembly. Atmaram Patel had offered to give up his demand for the BJP ticket in exchange for the ticket for some of his supporters. The move to merge with the Janata Dal was seen as a strategy to put pressure on the BJP leadership.

The BJP was also expected to enter into an informal understanding with the Sardar Congress - a Congress(I) splinter group which consists of erstwhile Janata Dal(Gujarat) leaders - in a few constituencies.

T. LAKSHMIPATHI

The Telugu Desam Party and the Congress(I) will fight it out in Andhra Pradesh. The Chandrababu Naidu Government's performance is the main campaign issue.

THE contest in Andhra Pradesh will be between the Congress(I) and the Telugu Desam Party. The BJP and its allies are expected to improve their percentage of votes, but may not make any big impact except in four or five constituencies in the Telengana region.

In mid-January, the ruling Telugu Desam appeared better prepared than the others to fight the elections. Party president and Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu held several rounds of discussions with party functionaries. In contrast, the Congress(I) was still troubled by factionalism, although the party appeared to be well-placed in Andhra Pradesh compared to other States. Congressmen hope to cash in on the anti-establishment factor.

In the 1996 elections, the Congress won 22 seats, while the Telugu Desam won 16 and helped its allies, the CPI(M) and the CPI, to win three seats between them. The Hyderabad seat was won by the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen. The Congress tally came down to 21 when the Telugu Desam later won the Nandyal seat, which was vacated by former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

The Telugu Desam planned to project the performance of Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu as its highlight although this might not be of great relevance in elections to the Lok Sabha. The Congress' principal target has been Chandrababu Naidu. It accused him of reversing the policies of N.T.Rama Rao (such as the Rs. 2 a kg rice scheme, total prohibition and power for farmers at Rs. 50 per HP). The recent spate of suicides by cotton farmers, distressed by crop losses following pest attacks, is an election issue.

The restructuring of the State Electricity Board, allegedly at the instance of the World Bank, has become an issue. The daily generation of power has reached about 110 million units, up by 10 per cent over last year's generation. Farmers, however, complain that power supply is erratic and that the bills are inflated.

The Congress(I) has cited the truce among warring factions and Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign for the party as other factors that favour it.

It is for the first time that the Congress(I) is facing an election in the State while not being in power either at the Centre or in the State. This is a strange experience for party veterans but campaign managers are undeterred. They hope that the State Government's "failings" will help the Congress (I).

TDP (NTR) leader Lakshmi Parvati.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The party received a drubbing in the December 1994 Assembly elections when it won only 26 of the 294 seats and failed to qualify for the status of a recognised Opposition party. It performed reasonably well in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, winning 22 out of the 42 seats and in the process accounting for the largest contingent of Congress MPs from any State. Congressmen also cite the majority the party secured in 148 Assembly segments in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections as a measure of its improved strength. "We have our own vote bank. The omissions and commissions of the Chandrababu Naidu Government will add to our account," said Pradesh Congress Committee president Mallikarjun. He was referring to the party polling 39.6 per cent of the votes in 1996 as against 37.7 per cent secured by the TDP and its allies.

But what the Congress seems to lack is a coordinated campaign effort as the seniors are tied down to their own constituencies. The party's approach also compares poorly with the aggressive style of the TDP and its leader Chandrababu Naidu.

N.T. Rama Rao's widow Lakshmi Parvathi's best chance was in 1996, because memories of his last days of anguish were then fresh in the public mind. Her party, the Telugu Desam Party (NTR), polled 33 lakh votes, roughly 10 per cent of the total votes cast. Her party has this time entered into an alliance with the BJP. If she can retain this vote base and help the BJP, it would be a big achievement for her. The BJP polled only 5 per cent of votes last time, and is expected to double this figure this time. Together, these two parties should be able to win three or four seats if they mobilise their resources to the maximum extent.

Among the BJP's prospective campaigners are film star Mohan Babu, MP, who has been expelled from the Telugu Desam, and actress Vijayasanthi. Film director Dasari Narayana Rao, who announced the formation of a political party called the Telugu Talli, has deferred its launch until May, and may not campaign at all this time.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

There is widespread disenchantment with the BJP's record in office, but the third force has failed to capitalise on this.

UNLIKE in many other States where the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I) have entered into alliances with either regional or national parties, the contest in Rajasthan is essentially between the two of them. A third force did exist until 1991, but the decimation of the Janata Dal that year, which was confirmed in 1996, made it a two-horse race.

The results of the elections to the 25 Lok Sabha seats will be a pointer for the main players as they move on to Assembly elections later in the year. In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the margins of victory in many constituencies were narrow. Traditionally, caste affiliations play a major role in the selection of candidates as well as in the electoral outcome.

In the last fortnight, the BJP made some gains but lost on other fronts. Richpal Mirdha, a nephew of the late Nathuram Mirdha and a sitting Congress(I) MLA, joined the BJP and was rewarded with the ticket for the Jat-majority Nagaur parliamentary constituency that was represented by his uncle. In the byelection that followed Nathuram Mirdha's death, the BJP fielded his son Bhanu Prakash Mirdha, a newcomer to politics, and took the seat from the Congress(I). Since then the Congress(I) had been trying to win over Richpal Mirdha's support; it even made him a member of the Pradesh Election Committee (PEC). Yet Richpal Mirdha became the second member of the Mirdha family to join the BJP. It is expected that Bhanu Prakash Mirdha will be given the ticket in the Assembly elections.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.-

An interesting battle is expected in Bharatpur with Krishnendra Kaur, alias Deepa, entering the fray on the Samajwadi Party ticket. Deepa, who belongs to the Bharatpur royal family, was the BJP MP until 1996. Denied the nomination that year, she joined the Congress(I), but was denied the ticket in that party too. In 1996, the BJP candidate, Divya Singh, won by a margin of over 90,000 votes, but according to some assessments her popularity has eroded substantially. The BJP was believed to be considering giving the nomination this time to her husband Vishwendra Singh, a Congress(I) MLA. Also in the fray is former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh. In 1996 Natwar Singh had shifted his loyalties to the All India Indira Congress (Tiwari) - now called the Congress(S) - but he is now back in the Congress(I). Observers believe that Deepa could upset the BJP's calculations and that Natwar Singh might benefit from this. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which finished fourth in the constituency in 1996, and the Janata Dal, which finished fifth, are also in the race in Bharatpur.

The third force in the State is the United Front, which effectively comprises only the Janata Dal, the CPI(M) and the CPI. These parties did not win any Lok Sabha seat in Rajasthan in 1991 and 1996. In 1989, when an anti-Congress(I) wave swept the State, the BJP won 13 seats, the Janata Dal 11 and the CPI(M) one (Bikaner). In 1991, the Congress(I) made a comeback, winning 13 seats; the BJP won the remaining 12. The Janata Dal fielded candidates in 22 seats, but drew a blank.

This time the S.P. is going it alone; it made its position clear by keeping away from the January 5 meeting of the U.F. that was to work out a seat-sharing arrangement. The CPI(M) will field two candidates: farmers' leader Sheopat Singh Makkasar, who was elected to Parliament in 1989, will contest from Bikaner, and Amra Ram, a sitting MLA, will contest from Sikar. The lone Congress(S) MP from Rajasthan in the dissolved Lok Sabha, Sheeshram Ola, will contest again from Jhunjhunu. The CPI will field a candidate from the Salumber (Scheduled Tribe) constituency. The Congress received a jolt in this area when Captain Ayub Khan, who was the party's candidate in 1996, joined the BJP this year.

As of January 14, the Congress(I) had not decided the candidates for Jhunjhunu and Alwar. It was expected to field former Chief Minister Jagannath Pahadia in Bayana. Former Union Ministers Balram Jakhar and Buta Singh seemed likely to get the Congress(I) ticket for Bikaner and Jalore respectively.

For the BJP, the going may be tough in Kota, which has seen a spate of industrial lock-outs, and in Ganganagar, which witnessed widespread unrest among cotton growers and farmers. Its prospects in Jaipur, Ajmer, Alwar, Bharatpur and other areas, where a high percentage of the voters are Muslims, may be affected by the police firing in Jaipur on December 15-16 in which six persons were killed (Frontline, January 23). The Opposition parties, especially the Congress(I), raised the matter in the Assembly.

Given the fact that there are no majoral electoral issues this time - despite the BJP's attempt to make "stability and good governance" an issue - and the fact that there has not been a consolidation of the third force, the outcome is expected to be on the same lines as in 1996. This is despite the fact that the BJP has a poor record in tackling civic problems and crimes against women in the State and in its dealings with the minorities. There is widespread disenchantment with the BJP's performance, but the third force may have failed to capitalise on it.

V. VENKATESAN

The BJP and the BJD launched a joint campaign despite hurdles in the seat-sharing talks.

IN Orissa, the Bharatiya Janata Party's alliance with the Biju Janata Dal ran into a few hurdles during the negotiations on seat-sharing. Even so, the two parties shared a platform at a BJD rally in Bhubaneswar on January 11. The rally, which drew a large crowd, was addressed by Delhi Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma, actor-turned-BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member Shatrughan Sinha and the BJP's Orissa unit president, Juel Oraon.

The BJD considers itself strong in coastal Orissa. It wanted to contest in the constituencies there and leave the seats in western Orissa to the BJP, where that party has a presence. The BJP would thus get Deogarh, Keonjhar, Balasore, Mayurbhanj and Sambalpur, where it fared well in the 1996 elections. The party finished second in Deogarh, Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar in 1996. State BJP leaders believe that the alliance with the BJD will propel their party to victory in these seats.

Anadicharan Sahu, who represented Cuttack in the dissolved Lok Sabha, has crossed over to the BJP from the Congress(I). Sahu was in the forefront of the forum of first-time MPs which campaigned against the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha; he was therefore not sure of a Congress(I) nomination this time. The forum was believed to have the backing of the BJP, which was exploring the possibility of forming a government at the Centre after the Gujral Government resigned. Moreover, the Congress(I) also appeared to be considering fielding Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik's wife Jayanti Patnaik in Cuttack. She has represented the constituency earlier. In the byelection to the Cuttack seat, held to fill the vacancy caused by Biju Patnaik's resignation (he won both the Aska and the Cuttack seats in 1996), the BJP finished third. After Biju Patnaik's death, his son Naveen Patnaik won the byelection in Aska.

In Puri, the Congress(I) has renominated Pinaki Mishra, who won the seat in 1996. Mishra too was active in the forum of first-time MPs, but the Congress(I) considered her prospects in Puri too good to overlook. The Janata Dal finished second in 1996 and the BJP third. The BJP hoped to field its film-star vice-president, Prashant Nanda here.

The contest in Berhampur, which was represented by former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the 11th Lok Sabha, will be watched with interest. Despite his being charge-sheeted in corruption cases, Narasimha Rao retains a following in the constituency for having provided a "stable government" for a full five-year term. Narasimha Rao's adversaries in the party - among them, Madhavrao Scindia and Arjun Singh - have stepped up the campaign to deny the former Prime Minister the Congress(I) ticket. The BJP swiftly moved in by taking in Gopinath Gajapathi, the former MP from Berhampur who stepped down to make way for Narasimha Rao. Gajapathi seemed likely to be nominated from Berhampur.

The Congress(I) received a shot in the arm when former Kalahandi MP Bakthacharan Das crossed over from the Samajwadi Janata Party. Das was considered close to former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, and his defection reportedly had Chandra Shekhar's approval. Das is popular in Kalahandi; the BJD tried to win him over, but gave up its attempt under pressure from the BJP, which was considering fielding B.K. Deo, leader of the BJP Legislature Party. In 1996, the Congress(I) finished second in Kalahandi, and the BJP fourth.

Until January 15, the BJP and the BJD had not resolved their joint claims over Bolangir, Sambalpur and Sundergarh. Former Union Minister and BJD leader Dilip Ray, it appeared, would contest from Kendrapara, which was represented in the 11th Lok Sabha by Janata Dal leader Srikant Jena.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The Sikkim Sangram Parishad is seeking the Congress(I)'s support in its battle against the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front.

Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

THE tiny Himalayan State has only one Lok Sabha seat. Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling blames the Centre for not acceding to the long-pending demand for a delimitation of the constituency to provide for two parliamentary seats so that the problems of the State can be better articulated in Parliament. Chamling told Frontline that the population figures should not be the criterion in the matter.

The ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) has decided not to field Bhim Dahol, who won in 1996 with the support of the Congress(I). This time the Opposition Sikkim Sangram Parishad of Nar Bahadur Bhandari has sought the Congress(I)'s support against the SDF nominee. Chamling is, however, confident of an SDF victory, even if all the Opposition parties put up a joint fight.

S.K. PANDE

In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP is concentrating on the Lok Sabha elections and appears to have conceded the race for the Assembly to the Congress(I).

THE BJP appears to have a curious way of dealing with dissidence in its ranks. In Himachal Pradesh, it has decided to buy time by nominating both former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar and State party president Prem Kumar Dhumal, who were at war for the control of the State unit and for the chief ministership, for parliamentary constituencies. The party perhaps believes that it can use the period of truce that it hopes will follow to hunt for an alternative leader at the State level.

The BJP lists for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections show that the party appears to have put its best foot forward in the Lok Sabha constituencies, taking into account the possible Opposition line-up. Shanta Kumar will contest from Kangra, Dhumal from Hamirpur, Maheshwar Singh from Mandi and Virendra Kashyap from Shimla. The BJP expects Maheswar Singh, a Rajya Sabha member, to eat into Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh's support base in the constituency where the Chief Minister's wife Pratibha Singh is the Congress(I) candidate and former Union Communications Minister Sukh Ram is contesting under the banner of his Himachal Vikas Congress. Maheshwar Singh defeated Sukh Ram in 1989. In 1996 the BJP put up a poor show. The triangular fight this time could prove close.

The BJP's list for the Assembly elections contained several new names and at least one major surprise. K.K. Kaushal, a leftist leader whom many people considered a prospective candidate of the Communist Party of India or some other constituent of the United Front, has found his way to the BJP. The Dhumal faction appeared to have been favoured in the selection of the 62 candidates in the first list. To some observers, the list seemed to indicate that the BJP had conceded that the Congress(I) had an advantage in the Assembly elections and that it was reserving its ammunition for the parliamentary elections. There is considerable heart-burn among unsuccessful BJP ticket aspirants that those who defected from other parties have been favoured.

Sukh Ram's strategy appeared to be not to reveal his hand until both the Congress(I) and the BJP had released their final lists. His focus was on the Mandi-Kangra belt, and he appeared to concentrate his fire on Virbhadra Singh. From all accounts, he was readying himself for a situation when he could be a crucial force whose support would needed to form a government.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

Elections in the northeastern States will be contested largely on local issues, a few of which are common to all the States.

SIX States of the northeastern region (barring the seventh, Assam) will together elect 10 representatives to the Lok Sabha on February 16. Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Meghalaya have two seats each, while Mizoram and Nagaland have one seat each. The election issues in these States will be largely local ones, a few of which are common to them. The foreigners question, which has generated much heat in all these States over the years, is not on the agenda, although it does influence the political debate in certain places. Fear of extremist violence prompted additional security measures in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. One factor common to politics in the six States is the strong presence of regional parties.

In Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, Assembly elections will be held simultaneously. The Congress(I) holds sway over the region, except in Tripura and Manipur.

Tripura Chief Minister Dasarath Deb.-T.A. HAFEEZ

TRIPURA: The CPI(M)-led Left Front has started an organised campaign for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. The main Opposition, the Congress(I), appeared to be slow off the blocks. The party is sharply divided over the appointment of Gopal Roy as the president of the State unit. Of the two Lok Sabha seats, each with 30 Assembly segments, one is reserved for people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. In 1996, the CPI(M) bagged both the East Tripura and West Tripura seats.

The CPI(M)'s lists of candidates for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections show some changes from 1996. Chief Minister Dasarath Deb has opted out of the electoral race, and 10 sitting MLAs have been dropped. The CPI(M) will contest 54 of the 60 seats, leaving one seat each to the Forward Bloc and the Janata Dal and two each to the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The CPI(M) has also dropped the veteran leader Badal Chowdhury, who won the West Tripura Lok Sabha seat in 1996. The party has renominated the senior leader of the tribal people, Bajubang Reang, for the Tripura East Lok Sabha seat. Bajubang defeated the Congress(I) nominee, Kashiram Reang, by a huge margin in 1996.

For the first time, Tripura could witness a triangular contest among the Left Front, the Congress(I)-Tripura Upjati Juba Samiti-Tripura National Volunteers alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

MEGHALAYA : The Congress(I) has renominated Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma for the Tura Lok Sabha seat and nominated former Mizoram Governor P.R. Kyndiah for the Shillong Lok Sabha seat. Meghalaya Pradesh Congress(I) president O.L. Nongtu said that the list of candidates for the 60-member Assembly had been sent to the party high command for approval. As of January 15, the other parties had not finalised their nominations.

ARUNACHAL PRADESH : The Congress(I) may not face much of a problem in retaining the two seats. The alliances for the Assembly elections are yet to take shape.

MIZORAM : The Congress(I)'s prospects in the lone parliamentary seat in Mizoram appeared bright.

BARUN DAS GUPTA

The BJP may benefit at least marginally from the people's disenchantment with the Congress(I) and the Asom Gana Parishad.

UNTIL mid-January, the election scene in Assam was hazy. The major players - the Asom Gana Parishad-led four-party ruling alliance, the Congress(I), and the Bharatiya Janata Party - had neither finalised their lists of candidates nor indicated the issues on which they would fight the elections.

The people of Assam are disillusioned with both the Congress(I) and the AGP. The AGP, for its part, has not shown any spectacular results as far as fighting insurgency and undertaking development work are concerned. The BJP is the dark horse; going by available indications, a section of the people are likely to favour the BJP.

The AGP and its three allies, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the United Peoples Party of Assam (UPPA), have a distinct disadvantage in that the government failed to do anything concrete on the administrative front in the last 18 months. The State's financial position has shown no improvement. With a debt burden of over Rs. 5,000 crores, the State cannot undertake any major development work without heavy investment support from the Centre. The roads in the state, including national highways, remain in bad shape. Floods caused less damages this year compared to the past, but it was not because of any flood control measures undertaken by the Government.

Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma.-ANU PUSHKARNA

To make matters worse for the ruling group, the State Government employees have been on the warpath. Initially they demanded the implementation of the Fifth Assam Pay Commission's recommendations, which would have meant an additional burden of Rs. 350 crores a year on the Government. After the publication of the Central Pay Commission Report, they are demanding pay parity with Central Government employees. This means a burden of Rs. 1,400 crores, and the Assam Government is in no position to bear an expenditure of this scale without help from the Centre. Although a Cabinet Sub-Committee has been constituted to go into the pay revision issue, it is obviously an exercise to buy time. The State Congress unit was desperately trying to get Sonia Gandhi to campaign for the party in Assam. Party president Sitaram Kesri's name was not suggested for campaigning. A faux pas committed by him is still fresh in the State Congress leaders' minds. While addressing a public meeting in Guwahati on November 12 last year, Kesri referred to the first Chief Minister of Assam and veteran Congress leader and freedom fighter Gopinath Bordoloi as Gopichand Bhargava throughout his speech. State Congress leaders were of the opinion that if Kesri campaigned in Assam, the party would only end up losing votes.

The State BJP unit, for its part, was trying to get party leaders such as L.K. Advani, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj to campaign in Assam. The overall mood in the BJP camp was upbeat. According to political observers, there is a chance of the BJP's vote share increasing this time from the 15.92 per cent it got in the 1996 elections. The dissolved Lok Sabha had only one BJP member from Assam.

Dissidents within the AGP, including former Home Minister Bhrigu Kumar Phukan and former Education Minister Brindaban Goswami, appeared to have lost some of their initial enthusiasm to float a new regional party. The AGP had, according to them, failed to fulfil the people's expectations.

The All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) too were planning to float a "pure" regional party. Although they held a two-day seminar in Guwahati on January 8 and 9, they could not make much headway after that. The seminar, sponsored by the AASU, ended with a tame resolution to form a "common platform" called the Asom Unnati Sabha (Assam Development Council). However, the programmes that the proposed Sabha would undertake were not spelt out.

This indicates that the AGP, which claims to be a "regional party with a national outlook", is still considered to be the only regional party capable of protecting and promoting the regional aspirations of Assam and its people. There is obviously a realisation that parties with a totally regional outlook do not have much political space in Assam.

IBOYAIMA LAITHANGBAM

The ruling United Front of Manipur has failed to field common candidates against the Congress(I).

THE four constituent parties of the ruling United Front of Manipur (UFM) have failed to agree on common candidates for the two Lok Sabha seats (one general seat and the other reserved for the Scheduled Tribes) and the five Assembly constituencies that go to the polls on February 16. The Core Committee of the UFM met twice to reach an agreement, but in vain.

The Manipur People's Party (MPP), sore that it was denied the post of Assembly Speaker in December 1997, said that it would contest the general seat and two Assembly seats and demanded that the UFM support it. However, the Manipur State Congress (MSC), the largest constituent of the UFM (it accounts for 24 members of the 38-member UFM legislature party), refused to oblige it. Leaders of the MSC said that while the three other UFM consitutents - the MPP, the Communist Party of India and the Federal Party of Manipur (FPM) - were recognised parties, the MSC, which was formed in December 1997 after a split in the Congress(I), was yet to comply with the registration formalities. This would require it to contest all the parliamentary and Assembly seats, the leaders said. The CPI and the FPM too said that they would field their own candidates.

Former Minister Nimaichand Luwang of the Congress(I).-

Former Deputy Chief Minister Thounaojam Chaoba is the MSC candidate for the general parliamentary seat; the Congress(I) has fielded former Minister Nimaichand Luwang for this seat. MPP president Okram Joy wanted to contest the general seat as the common candidate of the UMF, but in the absence of a consensus he appeared to have had second thoughts. As on January 15, the CPI and the FPM had not named their candidates.

Other national and regional parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal, were said to be preparing to test the waters.

Luwang told Frontline that he would benefit from the division of anti-Congress votes among the UMF constituents and independents. One point that observers believe will work against him is former Congress(I) Chief Minister Rishang Keishing's association with the Greater Nagaland campaign, which envisaged loss of Manipur's territory. Luwang, however, said that since Keishing had been removed from the Congress(I) Legislature Party leadership, the Congress(I) had no reason to be on the defensive.

Asked if Chaoba had the advantage of incumbency, Luwang said that Chaoba's inability to speak English or Hindi meant that he could not articulate the people's views in Parliament and that he was a silent backbencher in the previous Lok Sabha.

The MPP will contest two Assembly constituencies - Khetrigao, an MPP stronghold, and Khundrakpam, where the vacancy arose when MPP MLA K. Binoy was killed by insurgents. The CPI and the FPM, which won only two seats each in the 60-member House in the 1996 elections, are wary of overplaying their hand.

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah) initially resolved to enforce an election boycott in Nagaland and in the areas of Manipur that are inhabited by people of the Naga tribe. Therefore no party announced candidates for the reserved Lok Sabha seat. Although, in the strictest sense, only politicians who belong to the Naga tribe were covered by the boycott call, even those who belong to the Kuki community were playing it safe. The Manipur Government sought additional Central forces to maintain law and order. The boycott call was later withdrawn.

The hill districts that form part of the reserved constituency are inhabited by people who belong to Kuki and Naga tribes. But the electoral outcome will be effectively decided by non-tribal voters. As the hill districts are sparsely populated, seven Assembly constituencies in Thoubal district and Jiribam subdivision have been included in the reserved constituency. In other words, nearly two lakh voters in these Assembly constituencies, who cannot contest elections from these seats but can cast their votes, will decide the electoral outcome.

NAGALAND : The election process had come to a virtual standstill in Nagaland following a poll boycott call given by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah), but the group withdrew its call later. The insurgents had threatened to kill those who contested or otherwise participated in elections in the sole Lok Sabha constituency and the 60 Assembly constituencies. It had seemed a threat that politicians could not ignore: prior to every election, insurgents have struck at will, and although politicians are provided with armed security guards, such security measures have often proved inadequate.

R. PADMANABHAN

The Opposition parties believe that the larger the number of straight fights to which the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance is exposed, the better; but they have been unable to hammer out seat adjustment arrangements in a substantial number of constituencies.

THE Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance in Maharashtra made some progress in the first fortnight of January in its preparations for elections. The Congress(I), the United Front and the Republican Party of India (RPI) were trailing behind, but showed signs of beginning to get their acts together.

Following up on their near-complete agreement on the sharing of seats, the BJP and the Shiv Sena announced the names of 34 of their 48 candidates; 28 of these were members of the 11th Lok Sabha. On January 6 and 7, Atal Behari Vajpayee, toured parts of northern Maharashtra, where the BJP won four of the five seats it contested in 1996, and Marathwada, where it won two out of four seats. According to independent accounts, Vajpayee attracted crowds of between 50,000 and 75,000 in Dhule and Jalgaon (northern Maharashtra) and Jalna, Beed, Nanded and Latur (Marathwada).

Shiv Sena president Bal Thackeray at a press conference in Mumbai on January 9 at which he released a list of the party's candidates for the Lok Sabha elections from Maharashtra.-SHERWIN CRASTO /AP

However, the candidature of former Minister of State for Railways Suresh Kalmadi seemed to pose problems for the alliance. The BJP was understood to be interested in fielding Kalmadi, who left the Congress(I) recently, from Pune (which he represented in the dissolved Lok Sabha), irrespective of whether or not he joined the BJP. At separate press briefings held by the BJP and the Shiv Sena on January 13, their leaders were asked about the Shiv Sena's reported threat to enter the fray in Pune if the BJP fielded Kalmadi as an independent. The burden of the replies at both events was that the two alliance partners would jointly decide on Kalmadi's candidature unless he joined the BJP.

As on January 14, the BJP had not named its candidate from Beed, in the Marathwada region. Rajni Patil, who won from the constituency on the BJP ticket in 1996, has left the party and joined the Congress(I). Another BJP member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, Banwarilal Purohit, who represented Nagpur, left the party; the BJP nominated Ramesh Mantri for the constituency. Purohit reportedly indicated his determination to contest the Nagpur seat.

Although the U.F's official line was that it would have no truck with the BJP-Sena alliance or the Congress(I), the consensus among the Opposition forces seemed to be that the larger the number of straight fights to which the alliance was exposed, the better it would be. After several rounds of deliberations, however, they came nowhere close to hammering out seat-adjustment agreements for a substantial number of constituencies. The last date for the withdrawal of nominations in Maharashtra is February 7.

The Samajwadi Party, a U.F. constituent, carried on more or less formal negotiations with the Congress(I). In fact, all the U.F. constituents other than the Communist Party of India (Marxist) seemed to be in touch with the Congress(I). The two main factions of the RPI, too, held negotiations with the Congress(I), although the RPI (Ramdas Athavale) was supposed to be coordinating its election preparations with the U.F. There were also negotiations within the U.F., but these efforts were hamstrung by differences over the number of seats that the Congress(I) should leave uncontested, differences on seat-sharing within the U.F. and differences between the RPI (Athavale) and the RPI (Prakash Ambedkar).

According to a press release issued under the Janata Dal letterhead on January 14 by U.F. convener Kapil Patil, the Front's constituents had reached an accord among themselves on 23 constituencies.

There were initial indications that the Congress(I) would leave 15 constituencies to other Opposition parties, but following competition for nominations among different Congress(I) factions, it stopped talking numbers. As on January 14, only seven constituencies that the Congress(I) was reportedly willing to concede had been identified - four to the RPI (Athavale) and three to the S.P. On January 14, the Congress(I) released the names of 12 MPs of the dissolved Lok Sabha (out of a total of 15) who had been authorised to seek re-election from their old constituencies.

As on January 14, the BJP and the Shiv Sena had not reached an agreement on the Ichalkaranji constituency in Kolhapur district. Of the other constituencies, the BJP will contest 26 and the Shiv Sena 21. In lists announced until January 14, the former named 16 candidates, including 14 members of the dissolved Lok Sabha, and the Shiv Sena 18 candidates, including 14 members of the dissolved Lok Sabha. All the 28 who are seeking re-election have been retained in the constituencies they represented in the 11th Lok Sabha.

There were only two departures from the BJP's 1996 list. Besides Purohit, who has made allegations against party general secretary Pramod Mahajan in connection with the grant of a coal mining lease to a private company, Ramgopal Aswale was replaced - in Bhandara, where the party lost to the Congress(I) last time. On the other hand, Dhanajirao Deshmukh will contest the Nanded seat although he was defeated there in 1996.

Among those who seek re-election on the BJP ticket are Mahajan (from Mumbai North-East), who was Defence Minister in the 13-day Vajpayee Government, and Ram Naik (Mumbai North), who established a State record last time by winning by a margin of more than 2.5 lakh votes over his nearest rival.

The Shiv Sena candidates who are seeking re-election include Mohan Rawle, who has rubbed Thackeray the wrong way at least twice, most recently when he staged a hunger strike for the release of underworld leader Arun Gawli. They also include Suresh Prabhu, who was Industries Minister in the Vajpayee Government, and Madhukar Sarpotdar. But the name of former Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, who the Shiv Sena says is willing to contest on its ticket, did not figure in the Shiv Sena's first two lists.

There were only three new faces in the two Shiv Sena lists. One of them was Vikramsinh Ghatge, of the Congress-oriented erstwhile royal family of Kagal (Kolhapur district). He replaced film actor Ramesh Deo in Kolhapur. Anant Gite got another chance in Kolaba (Raigad district), which former Chief Minister A.R. Antulay won for the Congress(I) in 1996.

As on January 14, the Congress(I) was yet to select its nominees for Pune, Khed and Kolhapur, among the constituencies where it triumphed in 1996. Evidently the Shiv Sena's nomination of Ghatge from Kolhapur gave it food for thought. All three constituencies are in western Maharashtra, the only region where the Congress fared well in 1996 and which is therefore the main thrust area for the BJP-Sena alliance this time.

Among the Congress(I) leaders who are seeking re-election are former Chief Ministers Sharad Pawar and Antulay and former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil. The list also includes Datta Meghe and Praful Patel, whose names were associated with the reported efforts to help the BJP form a government at the Centre after Prime Minister I.K. Gujral submitted his Government's resignation.

As on January 14, the U.F. had allocated seven seats to the Janata Dal, five to the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), four to the Communist Party of India (CPI), three to the S.P., two to the CPI(M) and one each to the RPI (Khobragade) and the Bharatiya Panther. But even before an agreement was reached within the U.F., the Janata Dal unilaterally named its candidates from 11 constituencies, including Pandharpur, Malegaon, Mumbai-South Central and Aurangabad. This was evidently a pressure tactic. Buldhana, where too Janata Dal named a candidate was later allocated to the Bharatiya Panther.

The Janata Dal named labour leader Sharad Rao, who parted company with the Samata Party recently, as its candidate from Mumbai-South Central, where the Shiv Sena fielded Rawle. But the earlier understanding within the U.F. was that this constituency would be allocated to the Kamgar Aghadi, and Dada Samant, brother of the slain labour leader Datta Samant, was expected to be the U.F. candidate. To add to the confusion, the S.P. claimed that the Congress(I) would leave the seat for the S.P. and that it would field Sohail Lokhandwala. The RPI (Athavale) also seemed likely to enter the fray; it claimed that according to its understanding with the Congress(I) it was to contest either Mumbai-South Central or Mumbai-North Central. At this rate Rawle, who defeated Datta Samant by a margin of more than 58,000 votes in 1996, would find the going much easier this time.

The Janata Dal also named a candidate for Malegaon (Scheduled Tribe), one of the three seats in which the CPI(M) is interested. The Janata Dal named State party president Nihal Ahmed as its candidate from Aurangabad; the S.P. said that it wished to contest from Aurangabad or Latur and would pursue the matter in the talks with the Congress(I). It named its candidates for the Pandharpur constituency (Scheduled Caste), in which the RPI (Athavale) is also interested. The Janata Dal faces the prospect of triangular contests in Kolhapur, where it nominated Shripatrao Shinde as its candidate, and Mumbai-South, which was allocated to it by agreement within the U.F. but where it had not named a candidate until January 14.

In Kolaba, the PWP will probably face the Congress(I)'s Antulay as well as the Shiv Sena candidate. As the Congress(I) won the Ichalkaranji seat last time, the CPI(M) is likely to be involved in a triangular fight there. Likewise, the CPI will face triangular fights in Bhandara and Ahmednagar, which have been allocated to it.

The tiger squeaks R. PADMANABHAN

SHIV SENA president Bal Thackeray created quite a stir at a press conference in Mumbai on January 9 with statements that seemed, on the surface, to be somewhat at variance with his aggressive pronouncements in the past. "Hindutva," he said, "does not mean that Hindus and Muslims should always be fighting each other." Communal riots, he added, "would be costly". He then reiterated a proposal for the establishment of a "national monument" at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Plots should be allocated in the area for the construction of a mosque as well as a temple, Thackeray said.

The general impression created by his statements was that he was being conciliatory towards the minority community. However, the Shiv Sena chief also said that India "belongs to Hindus". Newspaper reports of the following day mentioned this statement only in passing, if at all.

Explaining his "via media" proposal for a national monument at Ayodhya, Thackeray said that the dispute had been lingering and neither the Central Government nor the courts had been able to resolve it. He asked: should there be communal riots, particularly at a time when the country was passing through a political, economic and social crisis?

Asked whether he was not softening his stand for the sake of power, Thackeray said that Muslims had asked for Pakistan and got it. What was left (after Partition), he said, was "the Hindus' portion." "We have nothing against Muslims who respect India's Constitution and the Tricolour and want to embrace us." But, Thackeray went on, India belonged to Hindus, though Muslims had religious freedom.

He said that Muslims had never sought an apology (for the demolition of the Babri Masjid); they only wanted to live in peace. Only politicians who wanted to appease Muslims in anticipation of electoral gains were talking of an apology, he said.

The press conference provided another significant insight into the Shiv Sena president's thinking. While dealing with the question of projecting militant Hindutva as an election issue, he said that the Shiv Sena had paid a heavy price for it: it had had to face several cases in the High Court and the Supreme Court. He said, "We do not want to face a similar situation now."

PRAVEEN SWAMI

The Haryana Lok Dal (Rashtriya)- Bahujan Samaj Party combine is working to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Haryana Vikas Party-BJP Government and the faction feuds in the Congress(I).

HARYANA'S veteran, the tau, is on the campaign trail again. Haryana Lok Dal (Rashtriya) leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal has been driving through the Rohtak Lok Sabha constituency, visiting village after village, unannounced and without the customary groups of supporters. His impromptu speeches deal with local issues: water-logging, the demand for free electricity to tube-wells as in Punjab, and the involvement of growing numbers of young men in liquor smuggling, and so on. One curious pattern of the Lok Sabha election results in Rohtak may also be driving him on: the constituency has never sent the same MP to Parliament thrice, and Devi Lal's opponent Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the State Congress(I) president, won in Rohtak in 1991 and 1996.

The HLD(R)-Bahujan Samaj Party front appears to pose a threat to the ruling Haryana Vikas Party-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. The HLD(R) and the BSP expect that if the electoral outcomes of the 1996 Assembly elections were repeated, their combine should win five Lok Sabha seats - Ambala, Kurukshetra, Karnal, Sonepat and Sirsa - albeit by sharply varying margins. In addition, the combine expects to fare well in Rohtak and Hissar. The voting patterns in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Haryana have traditionally been different; but even a replay of the results of the 1996 Lok Sabha elections would give the alliance four of the nine seats, and strong chances in two more.

Devi Lal is back on the campaign trail.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The HLD(R)-BSP front has emerged as a serious challenger owing to the HVP-BJP Government's dismal performance. The State has been wracked by an agitation by farmers against power tariff reforms. The people are also upset over high level of taxation, a grievance which recent concessions have done little to address. Finally, prohibition has led to the emergence of a liquor mafia, and charges of government collusion with bootleggers are widespread. The discontent has driven a wedge between the HVP and the BJP on several political issues.

The State unit of the Congress(I) is facing faction feuds. Leaders of the three main factions, led by Hooda, former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal and Birender Singh, called upon Sonia Gandhi to mediate in their conflict. Intervention by All India Congress Committee emissary Ahmad Patel proved unsuccessful. The factions are unable to agree on the division of seats among them. Bhajan Lal laid claim to Sonepat, Kurukshetra, Karnal and Hissar for his group, while the Hooda group backed four-time Karnal MP Chiranji Lal Sharma, and demanded that the Bhajan Lal group be given Ambala instead of Karnal. Birender Singh insists that his faction be given the Faridabad, Mahindergarh and Hissar seats, which have been claimed by the other factions.

The impact of the rivalries is evident in the Congress(I)'s troubles in the Faridabad Lok Sabha constituency, where the BJP's MP in the Lok Sabha, Ram Chand Bainda, faces the BSP's Dharamvir Badhana, a member of the Gujjar community and a Dalit leader, as well as the Congress(I)'s Avtar Singh Badhana, who was defeated in 1996. The Congress(I) campaign was affected by the factionalism; major State-level leaders refused to attend meetings organised in the constituency by representatives of the other factions. Since the Congress(I) candidate had won the seat in 1991, he might under other circumstances have been more likely to benefit from the resentment against the HVP-BJP Government. In the event, Dharamvir Badhana has emerged as a strong challenger, particularly because the HVP-BJP's slashing of development expenditure has hit the slum areas in urban Faridabad hard.

Om Prakash Chautala addressing a rally in Delhi in October 1997.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHKAPAR

The impact on the Haryana politics of an HVP-BJP defeat could be enormous. The ruling alliance commands only a thin majority in the Assembly, and HLD(R) leader Om Prakash Chautala had lobbied hard with the BJP to make it abandon the HVP and ally with his grouping. That effort proved futile, but should the HLD(R) acquire a significant representation in the Lok Sabha, it may keep its options open on which formation it should support.

Observers believe that the BJP would be willing to abandon the HVP at the State level in return for the HLD(R)'s support at the Centre. The BSP, which has a marginal presence in the State, could acquire greater significance here. The impact of this development on Haryana's caste-based politics, divided between Jats and other caste Hindu groupings, could transform the traditional terms of political engagement.

V. VENKATESAN

The Congress(I) and the BSP can together pose a serious challenge to the BJP, but the two parties were yet to reach an electoral understanding.

THE Congress(I) and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which finalised a seat-sharing agreement in Punjab without much diffculty, have been unable to work out a similar arrangement in Madhya Pradesh. Some observers believe that if the two parties join together, they can influence the results in at least 10 seats that the Bharatiya Janata Party won in 1996. But neither party seemed willing to yield ground to the other. The State unit of the Congress(I) rejected the idea of an alliance or a seat-sharing arrangement with the BSP. Chief Minister Digvijay Singh said that although he had been in favour of an alliance or a seat-sharing arrangement with the BSP prior to the 1996 elections, that stand was no longer relevant. With the return of Arjun Singh and Madhavrao Scindia to the Congress(I), the party was united and stronger than before, he said.

Nevertheless, the Congress(I) kept its options open. Party spokesperson Ajit Jogi said that talks (with the BSP) were going on. An arrangement with the BSP could not be ruled out, he added. In his view, the BSP might agree to contest about six or seven of the 40 parliamentary seats in the State, and leave the rest to the Congress(I). The Pradesh Congress(I) Committee recommended the names of 20 candidates, including that of Arjun Singh, who would contest from Hoshangabad, which the BJP won in 1996. In the 1996 election, Arjun Singh finished third in Satna; the BSP candidate won the seat.

The BJP's first list of candidates was announced on January 12. The party has fielded most of the 28 candidates who won in 1996; the names of its candidates in Jabalpur, Bhopal and Hoshangabad were not made known in its first list. Dada Baburao Paranjpe, who won in 1996, is ill and is likely to be replaced. In Hoshangabad, the BJP had second thoughts about fielding Sartaj Singh, who has represented the constituency since 1989. Sartaj Singh is the only Sikh Member of Parliament from the State. He was a Minister in the 13-day Vajpayee Government in 1996. However, the party was evidently considering other names so as to pose a serious challenge Arjun Singh.

Aslam Sher Khan, who resigned from the Congress(I) and joined the BJP recently, wanted to contest from Hoshangabad. Khan claimed familiarity with Hoshangabad in view of the fact that he had contested on earlier occasions from Betul, the neighbouring constituency. Alternatively, Khan expressed a desire to contest from Bhopal. Sushil Chandra Verma, a former bureaucrat, has represented Bhopal for three terms and won on the BJP ticket in 1996, but a faction of the BJP led by former Minister Babulal Gaur opposed his renomination. However, the party seemed reluctant to nominate Aslam Sher Khan, fearing that if the Congress(I) fielded a Hindu candidate, there would be a polarisation of votes along communal lines, with the outcome favouring the Congress(I).

The BJP renominated senior leaders Sunderlal Patwa (from Chhindwara), Uma Bharati (Khajuraho) and Vijayaraje Scindia (Guna). Former State president of the party, Dr. Laxmi Narain Pandey, will contest from Mandsaur; the current president, Nand Kumar Sai, will contest from the Raigarh (S.T.) constituency. Dileep Singh Bhuria, who defected from the Congress(I) to the BJP recently, will contest from Jhabua (S.T.), where he has a record of victories.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

In contrast to the historic 1996 elections, which saw the return of democratic rule, no issues of vital importance are at stake this time around in Jammu and Kashmir.

IT is difficult not to compare the 1998 Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir with the historic exercise of 1996. While the earlier contest marked a decisive moment in the State's political history and prepared the way for the restitution of democratic government, no issues of vital importance are at stake this time around. The National Conference Government has been in power for too short a period for the Lok Sabha elections to be a referendum on its performance. Nor have other political groupings, from mainstream parties like the Congress(I) and the Janata Dal to the secessionist All Party Hurriyat Conference, had the opportunity to reorganise themselves after the crushing defeat of their varied political platforms in 1996. What the coming elections will offer, at most, is a preliminary sketch of the State's emerging political landscape.

The elections in Jammu and Kashmir are perhaps unique in that the State will see no alliances of parties in the fray. The N.C. appears confident of its prospects in all the six seats, spread across Jammu, Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah announced on January 11 that the party would shortly release its list of candidates, but details were not available until January 15. There was considerable speculation that Abdullah's son, Umer, would enter politics and make his electoral debut, contesting from Srinagar. Umer Abdullah, a management executive with a tobacco company, has recently been seen at N.C. functions. Among other possible contenders for Lok Sabha seats from the State was Union Minister for Environment and Forests Saifuddin Soz, who holds a Rajya Sabha seat.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah with son Umer.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The N.C., however, faced pressure from some other United Front constituents, principally the Janata Dal, to vacate at least one seat in favour of its partners. In 1996, when the situation was somewhat unique, Mohammad Maqbool Dar of the Janata Dal won the Anantnag seat. Even Dar's supporters, however, do not give him much of a chance against the N.C. candidate there; what little chance he might have had has been subverted by a vertical split in the State party. Given the strained relationship between Dar and the N.C., Farooq Abdullah appeared unlikely to concede the seat to him. Proposals from the Congress(I) to concede the Udhampur or Jammu Lok Sabha constituencies to former MP Janak Raj Gupta seemed likely to meet a similar fate. This initiative was undertaken principally by former Union Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.

The N.C. is expected to face some resistance in Jammu and Udhampur. The BJP hopes to capitalise on the recent communal killings and incidents of rioting in the Rajouri-Poonch and Doda belts. Communal tension in the area had helped the BJP's Chaman Lal Gupta win the Udhampur Lok Sabha seat in 1996. Similar strains did not, however, help the BJP during the 1996 Assembly elections. The Congress(I) has traditionally had some influence in the Jammu belt, and the party's Mangat Ram Gupta won the seat in 1996. The party was, however, decimated in its Jammu strongholds in the Assembly elections, and persistent factional strife has done nothing to improve its chances since.

The BJP, interestingly, appears to occupy the Congress(I)'s traditional role as the principal Opposition party in Kashmir politics. It won endorsement from some pro-India militia groups in the Valley, notably the Jammu and Kashmir Ikhwan of Liaqat Khan and Yusuf 'Kukka' Parrey. Curiously, both militia leaders claimed that the BJP was not communal but merely nationalist. Their decision to join the BJP followed the N.C's failure to incorporate the militia leadership, barring the Srinagar-based Javed Ahmad Shah, into its fold. The groups command only peripheral electoral audiences, but their defection to the BJP suggests a worrying alienation and desperation among the ranks of surrendered terrorists who make up the militias.

More interesting are the adulatory references to the BJP by the Hurriyat Conference, which has called for a boycott of the Lok Sabha elections. In 1996, Shabbir Ahmad Shah had expressed his delight at Atal Behari Vajpayee's brief elevation to the office of the Prime Minister. Vajpayee is widely believed in the Valley to make a credible mediator between India and Pakistan on Kashmir; the belief is founded more on optimism than on substance. A spectrum of right-wing groups also believe that a right-wing Hindu party would be more willing to accord them recognition as partners in dialogue than a secular formation committed to supporting the N.C. Chief Minister. For his part, Abdullah appears to be preparing himself for a BJP government at the Centre. In recent times, he shared platforms with both BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal leaders, in what some people see as an evident attempt to ensure that his position in the State is not jeopardised by a hostile formation that would assume power at the Centre.

The business of conducting the elections is a challenge in itself. Large parts of several constituencies will be snow-bound at the time of polling. At a press conference on January 12, Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitley outlined measures that the State Government will take to enable smooth polling. Indian Air Force helicopters will be requisitioned to take election material as also security personnel to remote polling stations. A special nodal officer has been placed in charge of keeping National Highway 1, connecting Srinagar with Jammu, motorable. A massive security operation will take place to ensure that voters in high-altitude and forested regions have adequate security. Some escalation in terrorist violence is however expected, and intelligence officials say that killings intended to whip up communal tension in Jammu and Udhampur are possible.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The Left Front campaign gets under way even as the Opposition parties scurry to form alliances and finalise seat-sharing arrangements.

IN West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front has had a headstart in the electoral race. It released its list of candidates for all the 42 parliamentary constituencies in the State barely a day after the election schedule was announced, when the Opposition parties had not even finalised a seat-sharing agreement. The Congress(I) is in a state of chaos and is yet to recover from the shock of the split in its ranks after Mamata Banerjee broke away and formed the Trinamul Congress.

Mamata Banerjee.-PARTH SANYAL

In the absence of a final agreement on alliances and seat-sharing arrangements among the Opposition parties, the election scene in the State remained hazy. The BJP was seeking an alliance with the Trinamul Congress; the Congress(I) was trying to work out a seat-sharing arrangement with Subash Ghising's Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in Darjeeling, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Midnapore district in south Bengal and the Forward Bloc (Socialist) in Cooch Behar district in north Bengal. Meanwhile, leaders of the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Prasad Yadav and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Kanshi Ram were reported to have sought alliances with the Congress(I) or the Trinamul Congress.

The advent of the Trinamul Congress and the possibility that it will enter into an alliance with the BJP appear to have ended the politics of polarisation between the Left Front and the Congress(I). A senior State Congress(I) leader conceded that the presence of the Trinamul Congress had changed the political equations. The Congress(I) fears that Mamata Banerjee's party will eat into its traditional support base. The Left Front leadership believes that the Trinamul Congress might appeal to first-time voters and those who are not committed to any party.

Mamata Banerjee, it appeared, was wary of losing the support of the minorities if she entered into an alliance with the BJP. She did not hold direct talks with the BJP on seat adjustments; she maintained that the Trinamul Congress would contest 28 seats and would not offer the BJP more than 12 seats. Observers say that the 12 constituencies she offered the BJP are those where the BJP considered itself strong. Her calculation, in their reckoning, was that she could secure the BJP's support in the other constituencies. Talks on seat-sharing between the BJP and the Trinamul Congress ran into hurdles when Mamata Banerjee rejected the BJP's demand for 18 constituencies, including Calcutta Northwest, traditionally a stronghold of the Congress(I).

Mamata Banerjee's proposed 'Save Bengal Front' drew at best lukewarm response from the major Opposition parties; only the Samata Party, the All India Christian Democratic Party and the Lok Shakti, which do not have much base in West Bengal, expressed any interest. The GNLF's response has not been "positive".

The Congress(I) received a jolt when former Union Minister Ajit Panja and Krishna Bose, both of whom were members of the 11th Lok Sabha, joined the Trinamul Congress. The Congress(I) dubbed them "traitors" and the State unit recommended their expulsion from the party. The State Congress(I) had earlier suspended four MLAs for "anti-party activities" - and for associating themselves with the Trinamul Congress. However, the return of Sadhan Pandey, an MLA and an associate of Mamata Banerjee, caused some relief in the Congress(I).

The CPI(M) and the other Left Front constituents, which have a well-oiled organisational machinery, are also well ahead of the Opposition in formulating their campaign strategy. The octogenarian Chief Minister Jyoti Basu will be the chief campaigner of the CPI(M) and also its partners.

The CPI(M), which is contesting 32 seats, has dropped five sitting MPs; in five other seats that it lost to the Congress(I) in the 1996 election, it has given the party ticket to new candidates. The party has made clear its intention to challenge Mamata Banerjee by fielding a strong candidate - former Calcutta Mayor and four-term State Minister Prasanta Sur - against her in Calcutta South. Calcutta Mayor Prasanta Chatterjee is the party's candidate in Calcutta Northeast, where Ajit Panja will contest on the Trinamul Congress ticket. In Howrah, the CPI(M) has fielded Mayor Swadesh Chakravarty against the sitting Congress(I) MP, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi. The CPI has renominated Indrajit Gupta for the Midnapore seat. Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI(M) will contest again from Bolpur.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The elections may well turn out to be a referendum on former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav.

THE elections for the 54 seats in Bihar will be keenly fought and may well turn out to be a referendum on former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav who has dominated the State's politics for seven years.

There has been a realignment of political forces, and three major formations have emerged: the seven-party Jan Morcha, which has the support of the Congress(I); the Janata Dal-Left parties combine; and the Bharatiya Janata Party-Samata Party alliance. The constituents of the Jan Morcha in Bihar are Laloo Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Sibu Soren), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. The Jan Morcha has reached a State-level understanding with the Congress(I). The BSP and the SJP have virtually no base in Bihar. The Congress(I) and the JMM(S) contested the previous elections independently. The Congress(I) won two seats and the JMM(S) one.

Laloo Prasad with JMM leader Suraj Mandal.-RAJEEV BHATT

Laloo Prasad has not spelt out the details of the seat-sharing arrangement but he is reported to have offered no more than eight seats to the Congress(I) and five seats to the JMM(S).

The Bihar Pradesh Congress(I), however, insisted that unless it was given 20 seats, it would field candidates in all the 54 constituencies. The party high command was informed of this decision, which was taken at a meeting of the party's office-bearers and district committee presidents on January 11. The meeting unanimously favoured the rejection of any kind of seat adjustments that would demean the party's national character.

Katihar and Rajmahal were two of the 20 seats that the Congress(I) wanted for itself; it won both these seats in 1996. It wanted 10 other constituencies in which it finished second in 1996. The eight other constituencies were those where the party's State leadership thought that the party had a bright chance.

After extending its support to the Rabri Devi Government, the Congress(I) has been reduced to playing second fiddle to the RJD. The high command's decision to join hands with the RJD has demoralised the party's rank and file further; in fact, this accelerated the pace of the formation of the Bihar Jana Congress by senior Congress(I) leader and former Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra and veteran Congress(I) leader Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav. Some other prominent Congress(I) leaders left the party and joined other parties. Meanwhile, Laloo Prasad's announcement that he would depute party observers in all the 54 constituencies to ascertain the mood of the electorate before deciding on the seat-sharing arrangement with the Congress(I) appeared to have upset the State Congress(I) leaders further.

The two JMM factions - led by Sibu Soren and Krishna Mardi - decided to contest the four seats in the tribal people-dominated belt of south Bihar where the Congress(I) finished a close second in 1996. In the 14 seats in the belt, the Congress(I) and the JMM(S) agreed to enter into an understanding with the RJD but were reluctant to have an arrangement with each other. In 1996, the Congress(I), the Janata Dal and the JMM(S) contested separately; the BJP capitalised on the split in the anti-BJP votes and won 12 of the 14 seats.

State Congress(I) leaders were also incensed by some RJD leaders' statements that an alliance with the Congress(I) would be a liability for the RJD. Anti-Congress sentiments in the RJD appear to have strengthened after Laloo Prasad Yadav's release from imprisonment on bail.

Congress(I) workers from various districts exerted pressure on the leadership not to yield ground to the RJD by accepting just eight to 10 seats. Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign in Bihar came as a shot in the arm for Congress(I) workers.

Political observers felt that Laloo Prasad Yadav would have to come to an understanding with the Congress(I) if he intended to take on effectively the BJP (which won 18 seats in Bihar in 1996) and the Janata Dal, the party from which Laloo Prasad broke away to form the RJD.

The Janata Dal, which has yet to recover from the loss of its pre-eminent position among United Front constituents following the split in Bihar, had a tough task ahead, with its partners in the recently-formed Janata Dal-Left Democratic Front alliance announcing their decision to contest more seats than the Janata Dal would concede. The 17-party alliance includes the Janata Dal, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI(M-L) Liberation, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC). The rest are smaller groups that have little electoral stake in Bihar. After the Janata Dal split, six of its 24 MPs, who were elected in l996, remained with the parent party, while 18 joined the RJD.

Fissures in the Front came to the fore during the recent byelection to the Legislative Council. The Janata Dal went back on its promise to support the CPI(M-L) candidate and put up one of its own leaders as an independent. However, in the Lok Sabha elections, the constituents of the Front are committed to arriving at a complete understanding on seat-sharing.

The BJP, buoyed by the desertion from the Congress(I) and some other parties, managed to get its ally, the Samata Party, to renew the seat-sharing arrangements of 1996, notwithstanding the differences in the two parties' stands on Ayodhya, the repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution and a uniform civil code. The BJP will contest 32 seats and the Samata Party 22.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's decision to contest from Jalandhar with the support of the Shiromani Akali Dal has led to differences in the United Front, in the SAD and between the SAD and its ally, the BJP.

PRIME MINISTER I.K. Gujral's decision to contest the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat continues to be the focal point of Punjab's electoral landscape. The political consequence of the support offered to Gujral by the Shiromani Akali Dal, however, are unlikely to give his friends in the SAD, notably Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, cause for comfort. The United Front Core Committee's decision against any of the parties of the Front sharing a platform with the SAD in Jalandhar has created fissures in the SAD, with right-wing leaders allied with Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee president Gurcharan Singh Tohra demanding that the party's offer of support to Gujral be withdrawn. The BJP, for its part, is torn between its commitment to oppose the U.F. and its desire to maintain its relationship with the centrist leadership of the SAD, its alliance partner.

Gujral had won the Jalandhar seat in 1989 with the support of the fundamentalist Akali faction of Simranjit Singh Mann, which then opposed Badal (and still opposes him). This time, the SAD backed Gujral's candidature on the grounds that his Punjabi identity was a source of shared pride for all parties in the State and that he granted Punjab several concessions that were awaited for years. Gujral returned the favour by engaging in public displays of camaraderie with SAD leaders. Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and leaders of both the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) made no secret of their irritation with this spectacle. The Janata Dal endorsed Gujral's candidature despite these reservations.

The Congress(I), which initially remained aloof from all this, later joined the battle in earnest. Local Congress(I) leaders, including former member of Parliament Balbir Singh, announced their support for Gujral; State party chief and former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, however, said that the party would treat Gujral as an "Akali candidate". Bhattal said that she had doubts about whether a Rs.8,500-crore Central loan to Punjab, given for security expenditure in the battle against the Khalistan insurgency, had actually been waived by Gujral. "No one has seen the letter waiving the loan," she said, "and I suspect that this supposed gift of his to Punjab does not exist."

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral at the Golden Temple with Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and other leaders of the Congress (I) and the Shiromani Akali Dal.-S. ARNEJA

The Congress(I)'s claims to the Jalandhar seat are strong: the largely urban constituency has only thrice been won by other parties. In 1996, the SAD won the seat with the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which now backs the Congress(I). The Congress(I) also hopes that BJP voters will not vote for Gujral.

What is unclear, however, is whether the BSP's support will make a significant difference to the Congress(I)'s prospects. Under the seat-sharing arrangement between the two parties, the Congress(I) will contest nine of the State's 13 Lok Sabha seats. The BSP, which suffered severe reverses in the 1997 Assembly elections, is split down the middle. Its leader Kanshi Ram will contest from Hoshiarpur, where defeated the Congress(I)'s Kamal Chowdhury in 1996 by a relatively narrow margin of 11,000 votes. Chowdhury finds himself without the ticket as a result of the Congress(I)-BSP arrangement, and will now contest with the BJP's backing. As a three-time MP, he is certain to generate a contest of more than passing interest. His fight against Kanshi Ram will be aided by the split in the BSP, led by local heavyweight Satinder Singh Kainth. Kainth, who describes the BSP-Congress(I) arrangement as "anti-Dalit", contests the Phillaur seat as the candidate of his Bahujan Samaj Morcha, which has the support of the SAD.

The SAD-BJP domination of Punjab's politics has compelled the Congress(I) to consider a broader secular alliance. On January 10, Bhattal met CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet to discuss the prospects of an alliance with the Left parties, which have several committed pockets of influence in the State. Bhattal favoured the idea of leaving the Sangrur seat to the CPI(M), where its leader Chand Singh Chopra has widespread influence among agricultural workers and artisans, and the Bhatinda seat to the CPI. The chances of such an adjustment, she said, were "fifty-fifty". The Left and the Congress(I) in Punjab shared a platform last year when the CPI(M)'s Tarsem Jodhan contested the Qila Raipur byelection against the SAD as a joint Opposition candidate. Bhattal argued: "Left supporters in Punjab at the moment have no choice; to oppose communalism, we must become allies."

The need for such an alliance is undeniable. The SAD-BJP has perpetuated obscurantism in Punjab and eroded the integrity of key secular institutions. As the reports of intimidation of voters and clashes during elections to municipal bodies on January 12 illustrated, the ruling alliance is less than comfortable about its position. In some areas, notably Ferozepur and Faridkot, the rapprochement between the Congress(I) factions led by former MP Jagmeet Singh Brar and former Chief Minister Harcharan Singh Brar could pose a serious challenge to the SAD.

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