THE LINE-UP

Print edition : February 07, 1998

After much shuffling and shifting, the political parties have finalised their alliances and other arrangements, and the candidates are ready for the race. A State-wise round-up of the election scene.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

Poll alliances have only bogged down Uttar Pradesh's political parties. Their performance will largely depend on their ability to resolve seat-sharing disputes.

THE electoral scene in Uttar Pradesh, as the pre-poll manoeuvres of various parties move into top gear, is best described in one word: confusion.

Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The Bahujan Samaj Party appeared to be the most confused about electoral strategy, with party chief Kanshi Ram and former Chief Minister Mayawati advocating contradictory approaches. The Dalit-oriented party secured the third position in the last elections with six seats and 20 per cent of the popular vote. While Kanshi Ram is ready for an alliance with both the Congress(I) and Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Mayawati wants the party to go it alone in all the 85 Lok Sabha seats. Her stand seems to have prevailed, despite the fact that in the recent Legislative Council elections for 39 seats, the party did not win even one.

Attendance at election meetings addressed by Kanshi Ram and Mayawati has been unimpressive. To make matters worse, there has been a steady flow of BSP MLAs and leaders either to the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) or the BJP. BSP insiders admit that the party will now find it difficult to identify candidates with a minimum chance of victory for all the seats.

The United Front (U.F.) is also racked by disputes. The spat over seats between the S.P. and the Janata Dal continued for more than a fortnight, with neither party showing any sign of relenting. The Janata Dal has staked its claim for all the 16 seats it contested last time (it won only two of these). The S.P.'s position is that if this demand is accepted, it would mean certain defeat for the U.F. in several seats as the Janata Dal does not have the organisational machinery to conduct even a nominal campaign. The S.P. wants to contest 75 seats; one of them was represented by the Janata Dal in the last Lok Sabha. CPI(M) general secretary, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, has been assigned the task of mediating between the S.P. and the Janata Dal.

The election meetings of the U.F. have, however, not suffered the fate of the BSP rallies. The rallies addressed by S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav and other leaders have been generally impressive. The S.P. has also been attracting leaders and supporters of other parties.

The confusion in the BJP can be traced to more than one factor. To begin with, the State party is trying to strike a balance between the major items on the agenda prescribed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The party's campaign has also been impeded by a revolt in the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC) as well as discontent within the party over the selection of candidates. However, the party has had a head start over its rivals, as it was able to finalise seat adjustments with allies such as the Samata Party, the UPLC and the Jantantrik BSP. The BJP has allotted four seats to the UPLC, three to the JBSP and two to the Samata Party. It has also announced its support to former Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, who is contesting as an independent from Pilibhit.

Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party leader Ajit Singh.-RAJEEV BHATT

The sharing of seats among the BJP and its allies was not a smooth affair. Two UPLC Ministers, Jagadambika Pal and Harishankar Tiwari, revolted against their leader Naresh Agarwal alleging that he had chosen candidates who were certain to face defeat. Apparently, they wanted Jagadambika Pal's wife and Tiwari's son fielded in Domariaganj and Khalilabad respectively. Agarwal accepted the Kaiserganj, Barabanki, Akbarpur and Shahabad seats, despite their threat that they would quit the Kalyan Singh Ministry. Both sides gave up their aggressive postures following the intervention of Kalyan Singh.

The BJP's position immediately after its spectacular performance in the Legislative Council elections was that it would not give 10 seats to its alliance partners. However, after assessing the ground realities - after all, the S.P. was not as badly placed as the Council election results indicated - the BJP decided to be more accommodative. The S.P. won the majority of the 11 Council seats it contested in the Bundelkhand region, which accounts for 30 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP fears that if this trend manifests itself again, it will fail to improve its position. The BJP leadership, especially Kalyan Singh, expects the coalition partners, and their leaders in their individual capacities, to add at least five percentage points to the BJP's voteshare, which was 33 per cent in 1996. This would mean that the coalition can win 65 to 70 seats.

Before the seat-sharing was finalised, the BJP faced another imbroglio: while the dominant section of the State party, led by president Rajnath Singh, wanted an alliance with the Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party (BKKP), it was not acceptable to the central leadership. The reason was that RJD leader Sompal had been admitted to the BJP on the promise that he would be allotted the Baghpat seat, which is BKKP leader Ajit Singh's home constituency. An alliance with the BKKP would mean shifting Sompal out of Baghpat, which Sompal would oppose. Ultimately, the central leadership's "word of honour" prevailed over the State unit's proposal to strengthen itself. The BKKP alliance did not come through. The BKKP, on the rebound, has aligned itself with the Congress(I).

The Congress(I), which was going through a bad phase, seems to have gained a fresh lease of life with Sonia Gandhi's entry on the campaign scene. According to a senior leader who spoke on condition of anonymity, with a tacit understanding with the S.P. in some constituencies, the Congress(I) hopes to increase its strength from the present five seats to 10.

PARVATHI MENON

The Janata Dal Government wins a vote of confidence in the Assembly and uses the opportunity to put the Opposition parties, especially Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti, on the defensive.

THE Karnataka Government headed by J.H. Patel won a vote of confidence at a special session of the Legislative Assembly on January 27. The Government sought the confidence vote in the wake of the resignation of three senior Ministers and three legislators from the ruling Janata Dal and the claim of the Opposition, particularly the Lok Shakti, that the Janata Dal Government had lost its majority. The Janata Dal, which had issued a whip to its members to vote for the motion, has 122 members (including associate members) in a House of 225.

By this deft move, the Janata Dal leadership not only defused what could have become a serious crisis for the party and the Government on the eve of the elections, but also gained election ammunition from the episode, which can now be projected as an attempt by the Opposition parties to destabilise a democratically elected government.

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

The Lok Shakti chose to present the resignations, on January 21, of Ministers R.V. Deshpande, Ramesh Jigajinagi and Ajay Kumar Sarnaik, and legislators K.S. Beelgi, B.R. Yavagal and Govind Karjol as a major coup and the beginning of the end of the J.H. Patel Ministry. The legislators themselves were, however, caught in a predicament entirely of their own making. Although they squarely blamed the "family rule" imposed on the party by former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and Union Minister S.R. Bommai for their disenchantment, they did not resign from the party and join the Lok Shakti. They joined the Rashtriya Nava Nirmana Vedike (professedly a "non-political" forum which Ramakrishna Hegde formed soon after he was expelled from the Janata Dal in June 1996) in a calculated move to avoid disqualification under the Anti-Defection Act. Deshpande and his group also announced their decision to campaign for the BJP-Lok Shakti alliance. (A few days prior to his resignation, Deshpande had gone on record criticising Hegde's tie-up with the BJP.)

J.H. Patel was swift to react. He called for a vote of confidence and threatened the Lok Shakti group with expulsion if its members defied the party whip and voted against the Government, and campaigned for the BJP-Lok Shakti alliance. Outmanoeuvred, the Deshpande group changed tack and declared their intention to vote with the Janata Dal on the motion of confidence.

Although Hegde's political brinkmanship has brought unforeseen gains for the Janata Dal, the party has not been able to put on a face of unity as it could in the campaigns for the 1994 (Assembly) and 1996 (Lok Sabha) elections in which the Hegde-Deve Gowda-Bommai combine helped it sweep the polls. The party now feels the real impact of the expulsion of Hegde. The Janata Dal has announced the names of 15 candidates in its first list - of these, 10 were members of the dissolved House. Despite its vulnerability to criticism of promoting "dynasty rule", the party has fielded H.D. Kumaraswamy, Deve Gowda's son, in the Kanakapura constituency. Deve Gowda himself is contesting the Hassan seat. The Janata Dal announced its campaign schedule only on January 23. The promised joint campaign by United Front Chief Ministers has not taken place. Only J.H. Patel and some of his senior Cabinet colleagues have started canvassing in northern Karnataka. The Janata Dal has also refused to give a single seat to its Left allies - the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI). The CPI(M) has decided to contest two seats on its own, one of which is Chickaballapur. (In Chickaballapur, the Congress(I) has fielded R.L. Jalappa, Minister for Textiles in the U.F. Government at the Centre, who joined it recently.) The State unit of the CPI has said that it will contest in four constituencies.

As for the Lok Shakti, its alliance with the BJP has elevated its status in the public perception from a marginal player to a major political force. Under the accord between the two parties, the Lok Shakti will contest 10 seats and the BJP 18. The Lok Shakti has announced that Hegde will not contest as he will be needed for campaigning. Jeevaraj Alva, State unit president, will contest in Bangalore North.

While Hegde has said on more than one occasion that the Lok Shakti has its own policies and programmes and will not endorse any of the controversial positions of the BJP (such as the construction of a Ram mandir in Ayodhya), the State leadership has made it clear that it will not dilute its platform to accommodate its ally.

The Congress(I) is yet to capitalise on the Sonia Gandhi factor, which appeared to have energised the party initially. Even by the last week of January, the party hadnot commenced its campaign. Notable among the Congress(I) contestants is former Union Minister Jaffer Sharief (Bangalore North).

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

The DMK-led alliance has suffered a setback with the virtual exit of the CPI(M); the rival alliance led by the AIADMK is faced with defections from the top rungs of its constituent parties.

TOUGH positions taken by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) over the sharing of seats with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) may see the exit of the CPI(M) from the DMK-led alliance. The dispute has also adversely affected the Communist Party of India (CPI), another member of the alliance; it was forced to surrender to the DMK the Sivakasi seat, which it held in the dissolved Lok Sabha.

Dissatisfied with the DMK-TMC decision to leave only one Lok Sabha seat to it while it had been demanding for more, the State Committee of the CPI(M) announced on January 22 that the party would go it alone. It named six constituencies, including Coimbatore, which it would contest. DMK president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said that if the CPI(M) did not accept the DMK-TMC combine's offer, the DMK would field its candidate against the CPI(M) in Coimbatore as well. He added that the DMK would return the Sivakasi seat to the CPI in such an eventuality.

In the 1996 elections, the DMK-TMC-CPI alliance won all the 39 Lok Sabha seats from the State (DMK 17, TMC 20 and CPI two). The CPI(M) and the Janata Dal fought the elections in alliance with the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). However, in the situation that followed the elections, the CPI(M), like the CPI, functioned in association with the DMK and the TMC as members of the ruling United Front at the Centre. The CPI(M), as also the Janata Dal, sought to fight the elections this time in alliance with the DMK-led front. The CPI(M) demanded two seats and the Janata Dal six. The claims of the Janata Dal were brushed aside by the DMK-TMC combine since, in its perception, the Janata Dal has no significant presence in the State. The differences with the CPI(M) are attributed to the "big brother" attitude of the DMK and the TMC. The DMK and the TMC initially maintained that they would not spare any of the seats they won in 1996. The CPI wanted to retain its two seats. So the question was how to accommodate the CPI(M). The DMK later appeared to have relented; it offered one of the seats it held, Coimbatore, to the CPI(M). At the same time, it announced that it would take the Sivakasi seat from the CPI. (One reason cited for this was that the CPI candidate won the seat last time with a margin of only about 24,000 votes.) This formula, the DMK leadership said, would enable it to field candidates for 17 seats as it did in 1996. There seems to be another, unstated, reason for the DMK's willingness to spare the Coimbatore seat for the CPI(M). Observers suggest that the DMK fears that there has been some erosion in its base in the constituency following the communal clashes in Coimbatore city in November-December 1997 (Frontline, December 26, 1997).

Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary N. Sankaraiah.-T.A. HAFEEZ

Coimbatore was one of the constituencies that the CPI(M) wanted to contest; the party believed that it could do well there because of its strong base among the industrial workers in the city. The party, however, felt that it should be given at least two more seats, in keeping with its stature. There was the suggestion that just as the DMK did, the TMC should also surrender one seat from its quota to be allotted to the CPI(M). TMC president G.K. Moopanar was in no mood to oblige.

The CPI was stung by the denial of the Sivakasi seat. CPI State Council secretary R. Nallakannu wondered why his party, which had stood by the DMK all along, should be asked to forgo one of its seats when neither the DMK nor the TMC would do so. If it was felt that the CPI's chances in Sivakasi were not good, it could be allotted another seat, he argued.

CPI(M) State secretary N. Sankaraiah said that it was a most important question for the party. He wondered whether DMK and TMC leaders underestimated the strength of the rival alliance led by the AIADMK, which had the BJP, the MDMK, the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and some other parties as constituents. Sankaraiah said: "The present stand of the DMK-TMC leadership is not helpful in taking on the alliance between the communal BJP and the corrupt AIADMK. The DMK and the TMC should give up the formula of allotting one seat each to the CPI(M) and the CPI. The ball is in their court now." He added that CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet had endorsed the Tamil Nadu unit's stand to go it alone if it was not allotted an adequate number of seats, which he put at "anything between two and six".

CPI(M) leaders said that it looked as if the DMK and the TMC not only underestimated the strength of the AIADMK-BJP alliance, but were not aware of the anti-Establishment sentiment among the people. After the CPI(M) announced its decision, Karunanidhi and Moopanar met on January 23. The CPI(M) issue is said to have figured in their talks. The TMC, however, refused to relent. A TMC leader said: "The CPI(M) has no choice. It can neither join the AIADMK-led front nor align itself with the Congress." Another leader said: "We are the guarantors for the DMK. We have got the upper hand in the alliance. We do not gain anything from the CPI(M)'s presence in the front. It has to be satisfied with one seat." He admitted that the TMC leadership was under pressure from its members in the dissolved Lok Sabha for renomination. The leadership feared that some of them would defect to the Congress(I) if they were denied the ticket.

However, DMK and TMC sources gave one the impression that both the parties were settling scores with the CPI(M). The CPI(M) walked out of the DMK-led front in 1993, accusing the DMK of having a "tacit understanding" with the Congress(I) in the byelection to the Palani Lok Sabha seat. The DMK leadership was also unhappy about the CPI(M)'s alliance with the MDMK, which was launched by Vaiko (V. Gopalsamy) soon after his expulsion from the DMK in 1993. The TMC's complaint is that the CPI(M) did not support Moopanar for prime ministership after the resignation of H.D. Deve Gowda.

All is not well with the AIADMK-led front too. The MDMK suffered a jolt when its deputy general secretary, Pon. Muthuramalingam, left the party and rejoined the DMK. He said that he was unhappy that the MDMK had aligned itself with the AIADMK; MDMK sources, however, attributed his defection to the fact that he was not given the party ticket. A few days later, another MDMK leader, Madurantakam Arumugam, returned to the DMK with his followers, amid speculation that more leaders would follow suit. Recently, another leader, S. Thangavelu, a former DMK Minister, rejoined the DMK. Selvendran, who was removed from the post of AIADMK propaganda secretary, also joined the DMK.

The seat-sharing exercise in the AIADMK-led front was, however, completed with relative ease. While the AIADMK will contest in 22 constituencies, the BJP, the MDMK and the PMK have been allotted five seats each. The candidates of the AIADMK-led front include MDMK general secretary Vaiko.One seat each has been left for Subramaniam Swamy's Janata Party and Vazhappadi K. Ramamurthy's Tamilaga Rajiv Congress.

The Congress(I) has fielded candidates in 37 constituencies, and its ally, the United Communist Party of India, in two. The DMK-TMC combine has renominated all its seven Union Ministers.

Two film actors -- Sarat Kumar (DMK) and Ramarajan (AIADMK) are also in the fray.

T. LAKSHMIPATHI

The caste factor has overtaken political considerations in several constituencies.

TROUBLE in the State Congress(I) came in the open when the list of its candidates for the Lok Sabha elections was announced. Twenty of the 21 members of the dissolved House figured in the first list. The member who was left out was G. Atmacharan Reddy, who was elected from Nizamabad in 1996. He was denied the ticket because he allegedly made contacts with the BJP shortly before the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha. Atmacharan Reddy promptly joined the BJP, which announced his candidature for the Nizamabad seat.

Among the Congress(I) candidates is former Union Minister P.Shiv Shankar, perceived to be a Sonia Gandhi supporter. He has been chosen to contest from Tenali. Shiv Shankar, who hails from Hyderabad, is a newcomer to the Tenali region of coastal Andhra Pradesh. (He had earlier contested from Secunderabad and Medak.)

Former Chief Minister K.Vijayabhaskara Reddy, who has wielded considerable influence in the party since P.V. Narasimha Rao assumed its leadership (he is considered to be close to Sonia Gandhi), managed to get the ticket for a number of his followers. He failed, however, to prevent the nomination of Nadendla Bhaskara Rao. Bhaskara Rao resigned from the Congress(I) in December 1997, met BJP leaders in Delhi and returned to the State to announce that he planned either to join the BJP or start a regional party that would support the BJP. When the State BJP leadership ignored his overtures, Bhaskara Rao again went to Delhi, met Sonia Gandhi, and got himself re-admitted into the Congress(I). He managed to get the Congress(I) nomination for the Khammam seat. State Youth Congress(I) president P.Sudhakar Reddy had wanted to contest the seat. His followers reacted violently to Bhaskara Rao's nomination. They collected the furniture and files in Gandhi Bhavan, the headquarters of the Congress(I) in Hyderabad, and set them ablaze. Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president Mallikarjun, who was present in Gandhi Bhavan, was escorted out to safety by the office staff as the demonstrators tried to break open the door of his chambers. Three fire engines were requisitioned to put out the fire. The incident has affected the Congress(I)' image.

Youth Congress(I) workers, who went on the rampage at Gandhi Bhavan, the Pradesh Congress(I) office in Hyderabad, on January 5, argue with APCC(I) president Mallikarjun.-MOHD YOUSUF

The campaign by various parties has revealed that the caste factor has overtaken political considerations at several places. A Telugu Desam Party (TDP) MLA, Kothakota Prakasa Reddy, has extended support to Vijayabhaskara Reddy in Kurnool, while another TDP MLA, G. Veerasiva Reddy, campaigned for the Congress(I) candidate in Cuddapah, Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.

The BJP-NTR Telugu Desam alliance was on the rocks from the beginning. Although the two parties were only minor players(their vote share was 5.6 per cent and 10.6 per cent respectively in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections), they gave rise to an unseemly controversy over the sharing of seats, each threatening to contest all the 42 seats if the alliance did not materialise.

Meanwhile, TDP leader and Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has been campaigning aggressively for the United Front. He says that the Congress(I) will disintegrate after the polls. At his meetings, he asks the people for "wages" in the form of seats for the hard work he has put in as Chief Minister for the last two years, at the rate of 18 hours a day. Chandrababu Naidu says that his Government and the U.F. Government at the Centre provided corruption-free administrations, in contrast to the Congress(I) governments' record of scams.

Congress leaders hope to exploit what they call "the prevailing anti-establishment mood" in the State. They allege that Chandrababu Naidu's "preoccupation with computers" and his "hi-tech" image had led to the neglect of the poorer classes. The TDP Government, they say, has reversed all welfare programmes promised in the 1994 election manifesto on which N.T. Rama Rao, the TDP's founder, won a landslide victory. They cite the revision of the price of rice from Rs. 2 a kg to Rs. 3.50, the dilution of total prohibition through the relaxation of control over liquor sale, and the enhancement of tariff for power used by farmers.

The BJP's campaign style is to criticise both the Telugu Desam and the Congress(I) for their failings and ask for a chance for Atal Behari Vajpayee to provide a "stable and able" government.

LYLA BAVADAM

The plan of the Congress(I) to check the progress of the Shiv Sena-BJP has boomeranged, and the Shiv Sena is even making forays into the sugar belt of western Maharashtra.

THE battle lines in Maharashtra are yet to become clear. What is clear is a trend of pre-election defections - most of them from the Congress(I) to the Shiv Sena. However, the defection that is expected to cause the most serious damage to the Congress(I) is not that of a Congressperson. On January 23, Rajaram Salvi, the State president of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), announced his decision to join the BJP. Salvi was to have been the S.P.'s candidate for the Thane seat, which is held by the Shiv Sena.

As part of a larger game plan to defeat the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition, Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar had initiated an electoral understanding between the Congress(I) and the S.P. Salvi's defection has somewhat upset his plans. The Congress(I) now has a difficult task on hand, the task of finding a strong candidate to take on the high-profile Shiv Sena member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, Prakash Paranjape, in Thane. The Congress(I) candidate in the 1996 election, Haribansh Singh has left the State to contest from his home town in Uttar Pradesh.

Suresh Kalmadi, who broke away from the Congress(I) to form the Pune Vikas Aghadi.-V. SUDERSHAN

Although the BJP has not given Salvi the ticket, his presence will greatly benefit the Shiv Sena. He has a huge following in Thane and Raigad districts, where he leads the Agri Samaj which claims a membership of over four lakhs.

The Congress(I) was yet to release its complete list of candidates. It was apparently waiting for the green signal from Sonia Gandhi, who addressed her first rally in the State in the tribal belt of Nandurbar in north Maharashtra on January 23. So far, the party's Central Election Committee has cleared the names of only 12 MPs from the State in the 11th Lok Sabha. The party is yet to take a decision on the six seats in Mumbai, which were held by the Shiv Sena-BJP combine.

In the Vidarbha region, the Congress(I) has reportedly offered the ticket to a disgruntled ex-MP of the BJP, Banwarilal Purohit. Purohit has denied receiving such an offer. A section of Congresspersons, which includes Maharashtra Pradesh Congress(I) Committee chief Ranjit Deshmukh, believes that Purohit's clean image will help the Congress(I) wrest the Nagpur seat. However, the downside of inducting Purohit into the Congress(I) would be his aggressive stance on the Ram mandir issue; a section in the Congress that opposes his entry feels that his candidature will deprive the party of Muslim votes. Among those who hold this opinion is Vilas Muttemwar, himself an aspirant to the ticket. The BJP has chosen a local party functionary, Ramesh Mantri, for the seat.

Suresh Kalmadi, the high-profile representative of Pune in the dissolved Lok Sabha, who left the Congress to form the Pune Vikas Aghadi, is yet to announce his electoral allegiance. Kalmadi will be an electoral asset to any party, as his position in Pune is unchallenged. Both the Shiv Sena and the BJP are negotiating with him. The balance may well tilt in favour of the Shiv Sena; an indication of this was the presence of actor Nana Patekar, a Shiv Sena supporter, at Kalmadi's rally. Kalmadi has also enlisted the support of Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, who is known to be close to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. In a speech, Farooq Abdullah appealed to Thackeray to support Kalmadi.

The Shiv Sena-BJP combine was yet to reach a decision on the Ramtek and Kopargaon seats. The BJP wants the Ramtek seat, where the Sena has fielded a Congress(I) defector. Also not decided is the candidature of the former Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, who is likely to contest on the Shiv Sena ticket. The Sena is said to be waiting for the Congress(I) to release its list; it wants to deny the Congress(I) an opportunity to choose a candidate who can match Seshan.

Bal Thackeray kicked off the Sena's election campaign in Kolhapur on January 18 with a rally. Attended by about 40,000 people, the rally was notable for two reasons: it was the Sena chief's first public meeting in the city after the Shiv Sena-BJP's 1995 victory; it was also an announcement of sorts of the coalition Government's campaign strategy. Thackeray stated that he was in Kolhapur only to worship at the Mahalaxmi temple. However, by launching the campaign from Kolhapur, the Shiv Sena-BJP declared its intention to storm the Congress(I) citadel. Kolhapur is situated in the centre of western Maharashtra, the sugar belt. Support from the sugar belt has for long been the mainstay of the Congress(I)'s power.

The Sena has inducted local leaders who are influential in the sugar cooperatives. The Sena chief's rally was attended, among other 'stars', by Shahu Maharaj, the reigning Chhatrapati and a direct descendant of Shivaji, and Congress leader Vijaysinh Ghatge.

The most important announcement was the defection of Nivedita Mane from the Congress(I) to the Shiv Sena. Mane is the daughter-in-law of the late Congress(I) stalwart, Balasaheb Mane of Ichalkaranji. In the 1996 elections Mane contested as an independent and polled 30.3 per cent of the votes. The Congress(I) candidate, who won, polled 34.44 per cent. In fact, Mane polled more votes than the BJP candidate. This is one reason why the BJP has handed over the Ichalkaranji seat to the Sena. Mane's defection is a triumph for the Sena because Ichalkaranji is one of the 11 constituencies that the Congress(I) has never lost since 1952.

Karad has also been a Congress(I) stronghold for over four decades. In 1996, in an attempt to break this monopoly, the BJP extended support to the sugar baron Jaywantrao Bhonsale, an independent candidate who had until then enjoyed the backing of Sharad Pawar in sugar cooperative elections. Bhonsale lost to the Congress candidate by over 15,000 votes. Bhonsale has now joined the Shiv Sena and is contesting the Karad seat.

With specific reference to the Lok Sabha elections and the Muslim vote, Thackeray's recent actions are worth noting. At Kolhapur, Thackeray took his earlier suggestion about building a national monument at Ayodhya a little further by suggesting that it be dedicated to Mangal Pandey, an Indian soldier in the East India Company's army, who provided the spark for the mutiny in 1857. Next, the Sena chief received at his residence Pakistan High Commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi - a move not in keeping with his well-publicised views on Pakistan. At the meeting, Thackeray even retracted his earlier fatwa that forbade Pakistan's team from playing cricket in Mumbai. The all-important Sonia factor seems to be having its desired impact on the Sena. At the rally, Thackeray began his speech by dismissing Sonia Gandhi's presence as inconsequential. However, he spent about 40 minutes of his hour-long speech alternately to attack and challenge the apparently insignificant opponent.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR

The selection of candidates was a smooth affair for the LDF; on the other hand, the Congress(I), the principal constituent of the UDF, found the going far from easy.

THE CPI(M)-led ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) had a head start over the Congress(I)-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala; it announced its candidates for the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies almost a week ahead of the latter. The two Fronts won 10 seats each in the 1996 general elections.

The seat-sharing talks among the UDF constituents were not all that smooth. The Congress(I) refused to part with any of the 17 seats it contested in 1996 despite the demands for seats from smaller coalition partners such as the Kerala Congress groups led by T.M. Jacob and R. Balakrishna Pillai, the Communist Marxist Party (CMP) of M.V. Raghavan and the Janadhipatya Samrakshna Samiti (JSS) of K.R. Gouri. Only the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani) have been allotted seats: the former got Manjeri and Ponnani in the north and the latter Moovattupuzha in central Kerala. Both parties have renominated their representatives in the 11th Lok Sabha.

The Congress(I) itself found the selection of candidates a knotty issue despite the election-eve rapprochement between long-time rivals in the party, former Chief Ministers K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony. If anyone gained from the generous offer of unity from Antony who had emerged victorious in the factional war, it was Karunakaran, who had found his prominence at both the State and national level drastically reduced. (Both Karunakaran and his son and former MP, K. Muraleedharan, were defeated in the 1996 elections.) Karunakaran ensured nominations for himself, his son, and his supporters.

Former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran (left) and A.K. Antony.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

Encouraged by the new-found unity, the Congress(I) was able to name candidates for 13 constituencies early enough. However, the selection process broke down at this point, with Karunakaran insisting that P.C. Chacko, his confidant-turned-foe, should not be allowed to contest from Mukundapuram. Also, questions began to be raised in New Delhi as to whether Karunakaran, a Rajya Sabha member, should be allowed to contest.

The talks dragged on for days, with leaders wrangling over four seats - Mukundapuram, Chirayinkeezhu, Ernakulam and Kozhikode. Finally, KPCC(I) general secretary M.M. Hassan, an Antony supporter, was chosen for Chirayinkeezhu. Similarly, for Ernakulam, George Eden, a Karunakaran-supporter, was selected. The question of Mukundapuram and Kozhikode continued to be unsettled. Karunakaran was adamant that if Chacko's candidature for Mukunda-puram was approved, his supporters would work for Chacko's defeat. Antony too refused to go against Karunakaran's wishes despite the intervention of Chacko's new mentor, Sharad Pawar. In Kozhikode, against the Janata Dal's M.P. Veerendra Kumar, the choice of both Antony and Karunakaran was DCC(I) president P. Sankaran. A decision was, however, delayed with the party's central leadership suggesting former Union Minister K.P. Unnikrishnan for the seat.

The selection of LDF candidates was, in contrast, a smooth affair. The CPI(M) has fielded several new faces. In Alappuzha, the party has fielded a former district panchayat president, C. S. Sujatha, against V.M. Sudheeran of the Congress(I), a former Assembly Speaker and a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha. Another woman candidate is Prof. A.K. Premajam, former Kozhikode Mayor, who replaces O. Bharathan in Vadakara. Bharathan, a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, is not contesting this time due to ill-health.

In the Christian-dominated Mavelikkara constituency, where the Congress(I) candidate is Prof. P.J. Kurien, a member of the previous Lok Sabha, the CPI(M) has fielded an independent, Ninan Koshy, a former visiting Professor at the Harvard Law School and a former Director of the Commission for International Affairs of the World Council of Churches. In Mukunda-puram, the CPI(M) has fielded another intellectual, P. Govinda Pillai, a former chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation and the former Editor of the party's newspaper Deshabhimani.

Another significant decision of the CPI(M) was to replace A. Sampath, a member of the previous Lok Sabha, in Chirayinkeezhu, which has significant populations of Ezhavas and Muslims. Here the party has fielded former Assembly Speaker Varkala Radhakrishnan, who is considered a stronger candidate than the young Sampath. However, Radhakrishnan faces a tough fight from M.M. Hassan.

Karunakaran's son and former MP K. Muraleedharan.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The CPI(M) swapped the Moovattupuzha seat (a stronghold of the Kerala Congress (Mani) where the CPI(M)-backed independent candidate lost in 1996), for the Kottayam seat with the Janata Dal. The party has decided to recall its former MP Suresh Kurup to fight AICC(I) joint secretary Ramesh Chennithala, who has represented Kottayam since 1989.

All other CPI(M) members in the previous Lok Sabha - T. Govindan (Kasaragod), N.N. Krishna Das (Palakkad), and C. Ajayakumar (Ottappalam), and the CPI(M)-backed independent Sebastian Paul (Ernakulam), are contesting from their respective constituencies. In all, the CPI(M) contests in 11 seats. The CPI has its two MPs in the 11th Lok Sabha, veteran leaders K.V. Surendranath and V.V. Raghavan, pitted against Karunakaran (Thiruvananthapuram) and his son Muraleedharan (Thrissur) respectively. The CPI has fielded new candidates in Adoor and Ponnani. The Janata Dal has been allotted two seats and the RSP, the Kerala Congress (Joseph), and the Congress(S), one seat each, as in 1996.

The CPI(M) had sought the Kannur Lok Sabha seat from the Congress(S) in return for a Rajya Sabha seat, in order to present an effective challenge to the long-time MP from the constituency, the Congress(I)'s Mullappally Ramachandran. But the Congress(S) refused to part with the seat. However, the party replaced its State president, Kadannappally Ramachandran, with State Health Minister A.C. Shanmukhadas as the candidate.

To spite the CPI(M), which has closed its doors on communal and caste forces, the Indian National League (INL), which has pockets of support among Muslims, has unilaterally declared its support for UDF candidates. However, within the UDF, the Kerala Congress (Jacob) group is at loggerheads with its coalition partners, especially the Muslim League and the Congress(I). The rest of the UDF leadership had condemned T.M. Jacob's attempts to raise baseless allegations against Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar's family members in retaliation against the vigilance raids conducted on his house as part of a corruption investigation.

T. K. RAJALAKSHMI

The BJP has sought to avoid the risks involved in fielding new candidates, while the Congress(I) is unable to find suitable candidates.

BOTH the Congress(I) and the BJP took an inordinate length of time to finalise their candidates for the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan which go to polls on February 16. The delay was mainly due to the absence of good candidates and disputes over ticket distribution.

In order to avoid the risks involved in fielding new candidates, the BJP has allotted tickets to a few Ministers in the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat Government and also to the Assembly Speaker. The party proceeded cautiously for more than one reason. Its popularity in the State has diminished considerably. Besides, it does not want the anti-Establishment sentiments to crystallise in favour of the Congress(I), especially in view of the fresh impetus the Congress(I) seems to have gained following Sonia Gandhi's arrival on the campaign scene.

On January 23, the mood was upbeat in the Congress(I) after Sonia Gandhi addressed a meeting in Jodhpur, the constituency which was represented by Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president Ashok Gehlot. The same evening Gehlot filed his nomination papers from Jodhpur. The party has been beset with bickerings over the allotment of the Nagaur seat and faced a rebellion in Jodhpur. The leadership drew a lot of flak from a section of the party following the denial of the ticket to former Union Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar.

The decision to review the nomination of Jakhar came after Sonia Gandhi, in one of her campaign speeches, hinted that hawala-tainted leaders should not be given the ticket. The State party leadership was surprised that Jakhar would not be fielded. A senior office-bearer of the party in Jaipur had told Frontline that Jakhar's nomination was certain. Jakhar himself was sure of being chosen for Bikaner. He was perceived as the ideal Jat candidate to take on Mahendra Singh Bhati, the BJP MP in the dissolved Lok Sabha. The presence of another leader belonging to the Jat community, Sheopat Singh Makassar of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), would have made such a contest in Bikaner interesting.

Congress(I) sources point out that the party's prospects in Bikaner are good as the BJP is not strong in the Ganganagar- Hanumangarh-Bikaner belt. The party hopes to capitalise on the cotton farmers' agitation. But the BJP does not appear to be perturbed. Realising that the agitation may cost it the Bikaner and Ganganagar seats, the party has sought Rs. 51.18 crores from the National Fund of Calamity Relief for the farmers.

Former Union Minister Balram Jakhar.-RAJEEV BHATT

Jakhar was denied the Sikar seat too, which he represented in 1991; the party is fielding Hari Singh, who held the seat in the dissolved Lok Sabha. It was reported that a disgruntled Jakhar now planned to contest from Sikar as an independent. Between Bikaner and Sikar, Jakhar preferred the latter seat, though he had agreed to abide by the high command's decision. Some Congress(I) MLAs, who represent Assembly constituencies that form part of the Sikar constituency, have come out in support of him.

Former Union Minister Buta Singh faced an equally uncertain situation. While he is keen on contesting from Ganganagar, the party has been silent on the issue. In Jalore, the constituency he once represented, the party has renominated Parasram Meghwal. A Congress(I) source, however, said that in all probability, Buta Singh would be allowed to contest from the State.

Richpal Mirdha left a vacuum in Nagaur when he joined the BJP. It is reported that the Congress(I) would now choose Bhanu Mirdha, who won the byelection last year on the BJP ticket following his father Nathu Ram Mirdha's death. But Congress(I) cadres are not in favour of Bhanu Mirdha. Another option for the party is to field Ram Raghunath Chaudhary, an MLA.

The situation in the BJP was slightly clearer. Even as Gehlot filed his nomination from Jodhpur, the BJP decided to field its State president and Minister Raghuveer Singh Kaushal from Kota. Kaushal took over as the State unit president only recently. In Dausa, instead of renominating K.L. Meena, the BJP decided to field Rohitash Kumar Sharma, another Minister in the Shekhawat Government, against the Congress(I)'s Rajesh Pilot, who represented the constituency in the previous Lok Sabha.

The uncertainty over Jaipur was cleared with the renomination of Girdhari Lal Bhargava. Indications are that Nawal Kishore Sharma will be the Congress(I)'s choice. He had declined to contest from Alwar as he was not sure of victory.

Girija Vyas, whose nomination was announced by the State Congress(I) earlier, filed her papers from Udaipur. Her BJP opponent will be Assembly Speaker Shanti Lal Chaplot. In 1996, an influential mahant, Murali Manohar, was the BJP's candidate here. In the Salumber (S.T.) constituency, the BJP has decided to field its Minister for Tribal Welfare, Nand Lal Meena, instead of Gambheer Lala Meena, who was its candidate last time. In Pali, the party may renominate Guman Mal Lodha.

Alwar, which the Congress(I) is unsure of retaining this time, is proving to be a difficult seat for the BJP as well. The BJP's candidate, Jaswant Yadav, lacks popularity and party-persons in the district want Mahendra Kumari, a member of the royal family, to be the given the ticket. Nawal Kishore Sharma's victory in Alwar last year was attributed to the clash between the supporters of Mahendra Kumari and Jaswant Yadav.

Given the difficulties they face, elections in the State will not be a cakewalk for the two parties.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The Congress is on a firm-footing in Orissa despite the entry of a new combine, the BJD-BJP, into the poll arena.

THE stage seems set for a triangular contest in Orissa with the emergence of a third force in the State's politics following a seat-sharing deal between the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the BJP. Candidates of the ruling Congress(I), the Janata Dal and its Left allies, and the BJD-BJP combine are poised to fight one another for the 21 Lok Sabha seats. The split of the non-Congress(I) votes that the triangular contests would cause, will no doubt benefit the ruling Congress(I). The BJP has been trying to find a foothold in Orissa. The saffron party, which did not win a single seat in the State in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, is delighted at the prospect of making inroads into the State, riding piggyback on the party that Biju Patnaik's son Naveen Patnaik formed after splitting the Janata Dal.

The BJD-BJP alliance claims that it will be engaged in a straight contest with the Congress(I) and that the Janata Dal will not be in a position to influence the outcome. Political observers, however, point out that although the Janata Dal's support base has eroded considerably, its presence in a number of constituencies cannot be dismissed. They say that although the Janata Dal and its allies, the CPI and the CPI (M), may not be able to field formidable candidates, their nominees could eat into the votes of the BJD-BJP combine and thus help the Congress(I) gain the upper hand in several constituencies. The Congress(I) in Orissa is virtually free from infighting. The massive turnout at the rally addressed by Sonia Gandhi on January 20 in Bhubaneswar demonstrated the ruling party's predominance in the State's politics.

The BJP virtually recognised the BJD's dominant position by settling for nine seats as against the latter's 12. Protesting against this decision, hundreds of BJP workers staged demonstrations and dharnas in front of the State party office after the seat-sharing agreement was announced. Actor-turned-director Prasanta Nanda resigned from the post of party vice-president and launched a hunger-strike. Nanda was the BJP's candidate for the Jagatsinghpur Lok Sabha seat in 1996. He was defeated by the Congress(I) nominee, Ranjib Biswal, a cricketer and the son of Deputy Chief Minister Hemanand Biswal. Nanda wanted to contest from Puri, which went to the BJD under the seat-adjustment formula chalked out in Delhi. Another disgruntled BJP leader, State secretary Rudra Pani, also resigned from his party post. Pani was keen on contesting from the Dhenkanal constituency; however, under the deal, the seat went to the BJD, which has fielded Tathagat Satpathy, the son of former Chief Minister Nandini Satpathy. Party rebels have turned their ire on State BJP president Juel Oram and general secretary Prasanna Mishra, alleging that they sabotaged the party's chances for vested interests. They pointed out that Oram announced his own candidature from the Sudnergada constituency even before formal talks between the two parties had begun in Delhi.

With the defection of two-thirds of its MLAs to the BJD, the Janata Dal has lost ground in many areas. Although its leaders have been claiming that its support base is intact, party insiders say that even finding suitable candidates for all the constituencies is difficult.

The other United Front (U.F.) constituents, except the Left parties, are in no better position. Besides, the presence of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led Jan Morcha, of which Laloo Prasad Yadav is the chief promoter, in the fray is likely to harm the U.F. further. At a public meeting in Bhubaneswar, Laloo Prasad stated that wherever the Jan Morcha had not put up candidates, it would support the Congress(I). Since the Congress(I), which won 17 seats in the last elections, has already announced its decision to field candidates in all the 21 constituencies, there is no scope for any seat adjustment with the RJD or any of its allies in the Jan Morcha. So the RJD ranks would have no option but to support the Congress(I).

Chief Minister and PCC president J.B. Patnaik is happy with the situation. His friends as well as critics believe that he played a role in engineering the split in the Janata Dal. Patnaik appears to have a tight grip over the party organisation. By admitting into the Congress(I) two senior politicians - Bhakta Charan Das of the Samajwadi Janata Party and Mustafiz Ahmed of the Janata Dal - he has strengthened his position further.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

In a curious turn of events, the BJP has by default occupied the role of the principal Opposition to the National Conference.

SONIA GANDHI has no plans now to visit Jammu and Kashmir. Even if she visits the State, she would find the State Congress(I) beyond redemption. The recent defection of two senior leaders of the Jammu region, Janak Raj Gupta and R.S. Chib, to the National Conference (N.C.) has left former Union Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as the solitary torch-bearer of the Congress(I). In a curious turn of events, the BJP has by default occupied the role of the principal Opposition to the N.C. The N.C., even more curiously, appears to be preparing itself for the prospect of a BJP-led Government at the Centre.

The feud in the State Congress(I) between Sayeed and former Union Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad proved its potential for damage on January 17 when Janak Raj Gupta and R.S. Chib joined the N.C., expressing their dismay at the "non-serious" attitude of the Congress(I) leadership. Their defections were prompted by the battle over the reconstitution of the dissolved Pradesh Congress Committee and the appointment of an enormous campaign committee that was unable to take any decisions on candidates until late in the day.

Janak Raj Gupta, who was elected from the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency in 1984 and 1989, was defeated in Udhampur by the BJP's Chaman Lal Gupta in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. A subsequent attempt he made to enter the Assembly from the Bisnah constituency also failed. Gupta had since been lobbying for the Jammu Lok Sabha seat, but the party appeared unwilling to displace Mangat Ram Sharma, who was a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha. Chib, an N.C. Minister from 1986 to 1989, returns to the party after a not-so-happy political journey outside the N.C. He was the Janata Dal's candidate for the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat in Punjab in 1991. He also contested as an independent and lost in the last Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

Both Chib and Gupta, sources told Frontline, are likely to be nominated for the two seats in the Jammu region, Udhampur and Jammu. Their candidature could affect the chances of the BJP's Chaman Lal Gupta, who won the election in Udhampur in 1996, and the Congress(I) candidate in Jammu. The N.C. had boycotted the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, but won in most of the Assembly constituencies that form part of the two Lok Sabha constituencies in the Assembly elections that followed. The recruitment of Gupta and Chib, the N.C. hopes, will help it consolidate the large Hindu constituency that had supported it.

The Congress (I)'s misfortunes have been underlined by the defection of several Muslim leaders to the BJP rather than the traditional Opposition party. Bashir Ahmad Naaz, a Gujjar leader from the Poonch-Rajouri belt and a one-time N.C. member, joined the BJP along with Anantnag-based television artist Bashir Ahmad Dada. Dada, who contested and lost in Assembly elections in 1996, was connected with the Jammu and Kashmir Ikhwan, a major pro-India militia group set up by insurgents who had surrendered. Liaqat Ali, another leader of the group, also joined the BJP with them. The flow of surrendered insurgents into the BJP has increased of late. Groups of surrendered insurgents had earlier attempted a rapprochement with the N.C., but their approaches were spurned because of their reputation for extortion and intimidation. In this situation, the Congress(I) has been reduced to defining its political agenda by demanding negotiations with the secessionist All-Party Hurriyat Conference. In a recent interview, Sayeed's daughter and Bijbehara MLA Mehbooba Sayeed has demanded "talks with militants without asking them to first lay down arms." This, she claimed, "was the only way out of the current morass." "Talks must be held with the alienated Kashmiri people, and let the process of dialogue once begun throw up a solution." Neither the Hurriyat Conference, which she was presumably referring to, nor any terrorist group has shown any interest in bilateral negotiations with the Government of India or the Jammu and Kashmir Government. The Hurriyat Conference has called for a boycott of the Lok Sabha elections.

The only real concern the N.C. has about the elections is its independence of action should a BJP-led Government come to power at the Centre. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has been trying to build bridges with the revanchist Hindu party, which is committed to abrogating Article 370. At Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's recent campaign rally in Jalandhar, Abdullah attacked the Congress(I), but made no comment about the BJP. He has over the past year shared political platforms with leaders of both the Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP, notably former Prime Minister A.B.Vajpayee. Abdullah also flagged off the campaign of his old friend, Suresh Kalmadi, in Maharashtra. Should the BJP hawks take an aggressive position on Article 370, tensions in Jammu and Kashmir would escalate, and the N.C. would be pushed into the unenviable position of having to deal with them. It is, however, too early to tell whether bridge-building with the BJP will prove necessary.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

Except in a few seats, the Congress(I) appears to be in serious trouble. The latest blow was Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Kanshi Ram's decision not to contest from Punjab.

I.K. GUJRAL'S battle for the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat began with a whimper on January 22. Gujral launched his campaign before a relatively thinly attended Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) rally at Company Bagh in Jalandhar city. Sharing a platform with Punjab's SAD Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, SAD leader Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, Gujral devoted his speech to attacking Congress(I) perfidy. "After first inviting me to contest the elections from here," he said, "they are now opposing my candidature." "I have come here at the invitation of all Punjabis," the Punjab-born Prime Minister said. "My relationship with the people of Jalandhar," he said, "is above politics." Not a word was said about the SAD's coalition partner, the BJP, resisting which is the United Front's raison d'etre.

This lofty disdain for politics might mystify those who believe that politics is, in the first place, the basis of democratic elections. It is, however, consistent with Gujral's recent lack of concern for the U.F.'s ideological agenda. Two sets of nomination papers were filed for him. The first was filed by local leaders of the SAD and the Janata Dal; the second, filed by Union Minister Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, bore the signature of veteran Left leader of Punjab, Bhagat Singh Bilgha. Gujral chose to accompany the first set of his supporters to the returning officer, and with them was Jalandhar's BJP Mayor, Suresh Sehgal, who was present in his "personal capacity". U.F. supporters had to be content with a brief address by Gujral at the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, where again the Congress(I) was the target of attack. Then Gujral went to Sultanpur Lodhi to attend another SAD rally.

Gujral's lack of commitment to his reported promise to the U.F. that he would not share a platform with the SAD is only too clear. His lack of a mass platform, however, has rendered his hairpin ideological bends inevitable. In 1989, Gujral contested the Jalandhar seat with the support of the revanchist ideologue Simranjit Singh Mann, then and now committed to working for a separate Sikh state. Mann is now a bitter enemy of the SAD-BJP alliance.

Gujral's candidature from Jalandhar now as then appears to have a few impediments in its way. The Congress(I) has promised to fight the seat in earnest, but appears in no position to resist the SAD-BJP combine. The sole threat could come from eminent lawyer and BJP supporter Shanti Bhushan, if newspaper reports that he will contest against Gujral on behalf of the Committee for Judicial Accountability are true. If Shanti Bhushan cuts into BJP votes, it could help the Congress(I).

The BJP, meanwhile, is at work in the few remaining centres where the Congress(I) is strong. Film star Vinod Khanna will face Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, the three-time Member of Parliament who was one of the two Congress(I) candidates to survive the SAD wave of 1996. Khanna is better known for his involvement with the controversial Osho cult of Acharya Rajneesh than with politics, and his nomination is in some senses a tribute to Bhinder's dominant political position in Gurdaspur. The BJP expects the film star to wean away enough urban Hindu voters from the Congress(I) to tilt the balance in favour of the SAD-BJP front. The BJP's incorporation of a person with links to a fringe cult into its Hindutva ideological frame has caused a curious interest among political observers. Khanna, perhaps aware of Punjab's robust resistance to cultists, chose to wear a polo neck cardigan and blue blazer rather than the saffron robes he had taken to for a period after adopting the Osho philosophy.

Except in a few seats the Congress(I) appears to be in serious trouble. The latest blow was BSP supremo Kanshi Ram's decision not to contest from the Hoshiarpur constituency. That decision was taken after the Congress(I)'s Kamal Chaudhury, infuriated by his party's decision to allot the Hoshiarpur seat (which he had represented) to the BSP, defected to the BJP. Chaudhury lost to Kanshi Ram in 1996 only by a narrow margin although the BSP had an alliance with the SAD. This time, his personal popularity, along with the support of the BJP-SAD alliance, could well have led to a rout of the BSP in Hoshiarpur. Kanshi Ram's decision to choose discretion over valour can have serious consequences for the Congress(I). The State BSP unit, on which its hopes are premised, is deeply fractured and top leaders like Satinder Singh Kainth have left the party. Now Kanshi Ram's lack of interest in the State could prove disastrous.

The Congress(I)'s prospects now appear largely contingent on the developments in southern Punjab. The defection of lower-level SAD leaders to the ranks of Congress(I) rebel Jagmeet Singh Brar could put the ruling formation in serious trouble. Jagmeet Singh Brar recently effected a rapprochement between his own group and the rival Congress(I) faction led by former Chief Minister Harcharan Singh Brar for the specific purpose of defeating the SAD nominee Sukhbir Badal, the Chief Minister's son. A three-way split of votes between Harcharan Singh Brar's daughter Kanwaljit 'Babli' Brar, Jagmeet Brar and Sukhbir Badal, had ensured a SAD victory in 1996. Factionalism in the SAD is also a problem in the Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency, where former Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala is contesting. In the 1997 elections, feuds between senior SAD leaders Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and Baldev Singh Mann led to the loss of five Assembly seats in the region, the party's largest regional failure. The SAD is making desperate efforts to resolve the feuds; should they fail, candidates like the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s Chand Singh Chopra will find themselves in a position of advantage.

The broad lessons for secular parties emerging from the 1998 Lok Sabha campaign in Punjab are remarkably similar to those elsewhere. The lack of sustained ideological challenge to the SAD-BJP discourse has ensured that the religious right wing has acquired a near-hegemonic position in the State's politics. Congress(I) leader and former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal has been campaigning aggressively, in particular questioning Gujral's claim to have written off a Rs. 8,500-crore Central loan given to Punjab to fight terrorism. However, such assaults are by themselves inadequate. The growing influence of religious institutions over political debates during the SAD-BJP tenure, assaults on secular education, and the inability of the State Government to combat communal organisations have not been made focal points of resistance to the SAD-BJP combine. If the outcome of the elections helps drive home the necessity of sustained campaigning for secularism by all democratic parties, that by itself will be an abiding gain for Punjab's politics.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

Differences within the ruling alliance and in-fighting in the Congress(I) may help Devi Lal's party make some gains.

THE Haryana Lok Dal(Rashtriya)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combine's campaign began with a symbolic display of muscle power. On January 15, at Rohtak, the heavyweight wrestler Dara Singh was drafted to infuse some life into a staid political rally. Although Dara Singh has rejected appeals to contest the Rohtak Lok Sabha seat on the HLD(R) ticket, his presence at the party's rally underpinned its growing status as a credible challenge to the ruling Haryana Vikas Party (HVP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance. The New Year Eve change of name from Samajwadi Janata Dal to HLD(R), it would appear, has brought with it changed fortunes for the party and Haryana's political patriarch, Chaudhury Devi Lal.

The BJP has emerged as the Opposition's principal punching bag. At the Rohtak rally, both former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal and BSP leader Kanshi Ram attacked the BJP as a "capitalist party" which was desperate to capture power in New Delhi with the support of "money power". The task of attacking the State Government was left to junior HLD(R) leaders. Their attacks centered on the ruling alliance's unpopular power tarrifs reforms and failure to fufil past election promises. The Government's prohibition policy was also described as a total failure.

That the Congress(I) failed to find even a passing mention at the rally reflected the general perception that it has been unable to recover from the defeat in the 1996 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. The party, fractured by apparently irreconcilable factional struggles, has now pinned its hope on Sonia Gandhi's visit to Rohtak, scheduled for January 28. However, the visit itself has become a source of further friction among the factions. In Rohtak, Pradesh Committee president Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who won the seat in 1996, will take on Devi Lal. Although Sonia Gandhi's visit was approved by the PCC(I), former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, Hooda's main political rival, has been insisting that its timing and location were tentative. Both Bhajan Lal and Birendra Singh, the leader of the third faction in the Congress(I), have let it be known through proxies that it would be embarrassing for them to endorse Hooda's supremacy in the party by attending the Rohtak rally.

The feuds in the Congress(I) appear to be grounded more in ego conflicts than on any serious issue. Bhajan Lal's hatred for Hooda dates back to a rally held to honour Sitaram Kesri after he took control of the party. Kesri ignored Bhajan Lal, and Hooda ensured that Bhajan Lal did not address the rally. In retaliation, Bhajan Lal's supporters held a rally at which calls were made that Hooda be "taught a lesson". Birender Singh joined the fray shortly afterwards. At present, the three factions are at loggerheads over the allocation of the Karnal and Faridabad Lok Sabha seats. This has affected the naming of candidates for other seats as well. Although other parties have almost finalised their lists, the Congress(I) has so far renominated only two candidates, Hooda and Selja Kumari.

The bickering in the Congress(I) has been exploited by Devi Lal, who has initiated efforts to win over several middle-rung Congress(I) leaders. Sources told Frontline that he had visited three former Congress(I) Ministers, Subhash Batra, Krishna Murti Hooda and Raghuvir Singh Kadiyan, to seek their help in his campaign. Krishna Murti Hooda subsequently announced his support for Devi Lal. The HLD(R) opened another front by starting a dialogue with Rohtak city's 21 Congress(I) municipal councillors. The councillors are due to meet in early February to decide their loyalties. Local-level exploitation of the Congress(I)'s central fractures will not remain confined to Rohtak if Sonia Gandhi's visit proves to be a lesser spectacle than what the party leadership expects.

The HVP-BJP combine also has its own share of problems. One development that has disturbed the combine is the Shiv Sena's decision to enter Haryana politics. Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi is scheduled to visit Sonepat in January-end to campaign for the Sena candidates who are contesting against the BJP's coalition partner. Chief Minister Bansi Lal is less than amused at this, though the Sena is unlikely to dent his position in a serious manner. At a recent convention of Shiv Sena workers in Sonepat, the party attacked the Bansi Lal Government's record, apparently unmindful of its own alliance with the BJP in Maharashtra. This came only weeks after senior BJP leader P.K. Chaudhury claimed that Bansi Lal's party would soon merge with the BJP. It took a lot of effort to contain the furore this remark provoked in the HVP, and the Shiv Sena's foray is unlikely to improve HVP-BJP relations.

A defeat in Haryana would be embarrassing to the BJP. The 18 months it has been in power have seen the party's credibility erode steadily. World Bank-driven increases in power tariffs have alienated farmers, and Bansi Lal's authoritarian responses to legitimate protest have undermined the ruling alliance's democratic pretensions. Perhaps owing to its proximity to New Delhi, Haryana has had a disproportionately significant influence on national politics. The BJP strategists in the national capital can only pray that this time around the chorus of protest in the State remains unheard elsewhere.

V. VENKATESAN

All the three major players -- the BJP, the Congress(I) and the Rashtriya Janata Party -- are in disarray.

THE three major players in the State - the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress(I) and the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) - appear to be in disarray as they prepare for elections to the 26 Lok Sabha seats and 182 Assembly seats in the State.

Soon after the BJP announced its first list of 15 candidates for the Lok Sabha seats, the stirrings of a rebellion over the renomination of some candidates were in evidence. In response, the party deferred the announcement of its list of candidates for the rest of the Lok Sabha seats and also the Assembly seats. In particular, there were protests over the renomination of Bharat Barot from Dariapur-Kazipur, Yatin Oza from Sabarmati, Kamleshbhai Govindbhai Patel from Mani Nagar, and Gopaldas Bhojwani from Naroda, all Assembly constituencies in Ahmedabad district.

Some of these former MLAs were allegedly among the dissident members who supported Shankarsinh Vaghela and were spirited away to Khajuraho in 1995. Although they remained in the BJP after Vaghela broke away, they allegedly remained sympathetic to Vaghela, according to loyalists of the BJP's national vice-president and former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel. Keshubhai Patel is projected as the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, and the protests are seen as part of his strategy to get his opponents in the party to fall in line.

The BJP had decided to renominate all the 76 MLAs who were in its fold when the Assembly was dissolved, and Keshubhai Patel loyalists who wanted to deny the party ticket to a few of them backed the protestors. However, those who were at risk of losing their nomination reportedly claimed the tacit support of Kashiram Rana and former Chief Minister Suresh Mehta, both of whom are considered Keshubhai Patel's rivals. Rana has been renominated for the Surat parliamentary seat. The party's Surat unit president Arvind Godiwala, lobbied for the seat, in vain. Hardcore elements in the Sangh Parivar have stepped up their campaign against Suresh Mehta.

The Gandhinagar parliamentary constituency will witness a keen contest between BJP president L.K. Advani and Chaitanyu Sambu Maharaj, who will most probably be the RJP candidate. Sambu Maharaj, a former Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, contested an earlier Lok Sabha election and lost. Chief Minister Dilip Parikh is likely to contest the Dhandhuka Assembly constituency, which he represented in the dissolved Assembly. The BJP has decided to field Bharat Pandya, the BJP office secretary, against him. Pandya, who is making his electoral debut, is a young and dynamic party worker and a Keshubhai Patel loyalist.

Vaghela decided not to contest the elections so that he would be available for the campaign.

Pressure is mounting on the Congress(I) leadership to field State party president C.D. Patel and Congress Legislature Party leader Amarsinh Choudhury in the constituencies they represented in the dissolved Assembly. Both of them have expressed their reluctance to contest the elections, partly because of the Congress(I)'s decision to work out seat adjustments with the RJP.

The RJP and the Congress(I) have finalised a seat-sharing agreement in respect of 150 of the 182 Assembly seats and all the Lok Sabha seats. There are, however, indications of dissension within the Congress(I) in the constituencies that have been conceded to the RJP. There is a growing realisation within the Congress(I) that the party should not concede even half of the Assembly seats to the RJP, for it is unlikely that it will win all the seats it contests.

A political observer asked: "Why will people vote for the Congress(I) when the party has virtually abandoned its claim to form a government by agreeing to contest only about half the number of seats?"

Even as senior leaders B.K. Gadhvi, Sanat Mehta and Madhavsinh Solanki, who wanted to retain their pockets of influence in the State, pressured the leadership to clinch an alliance with the RJP, many Congressmen urged Sonia Gandhi, who addressed a public meeting at Bardoli in south Gujarat on January 23, to call off talks with the RJP. All India Youth Congress(I) leader and former Vadodara MP Satyajitsinh Daleepsinh Gaekwad presented to Sonia Gandhi a memorandum in which he opposed the alliance.

Sonia Gandhi's public meeting at Bardoli, which comes under the Mandvi (S.T.) Lok Sabha constituency, has unnerved the BJP. In 1996, the BJP won the neighbouring seats of Surat, Broach and Bulsar (S.T.); this time it is making a serious bid to wrest the Mandvi seat from the Congress(I). Vaghela's erstwhile confidant Niranjan Tolia remarked that Sonia Gandhi's meeting had demoralised the RJP, which has claimed a few seats in this region from the Congress(I).

Significantly, Congress(I) leader Ahmed Patel, who is considered to be close to 10 Janpath, asked three of his supporters in Broach district to prepare themselves to contest the three Assembly constituencies conceded to the RJP. The RJP went ahead and announced the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats that it was likely to contest, despite a Congress(I) request to Vaghela not to do so until the seat-sharing agreement was finalised.

Congress(I) leader and former Chief Minister Amarsinh Choudhury told Frontline: "The rank and file of our party opposes an agreement with the RJP. This feeling is predominant, and there are signs of a revolt. We find it difficult to maintain the balance between those who favour the arrangement and those who oppose it."

V. VENKATESAN

Averting faction feuds appears to be the BJP's primary concern. The party's list of candidates points to a play-it-safe attitude.

IN finalising the list of its candidates for the Lok Sabha elections from the State, the Bharatiya Janata Party appears to have played it safe. For the Bhopal, Hoshangabad and Jabalpur seats, which it had won in 1996, the party considered nominating new candidates. But fearing trouble, it renominated those who won the seats in 1996.

In Bhopal, Sushil Chandra Verma's nomination was opposed by the two rival factions within the BJP because he was not identified with either of them. Verma, a former Chief Secretary, was chosen by party president L.K. Advani. In 1996, he got 3,53,427 votes, 49.27 per cent of the total votes polled. He has a following in some rural pockets of the constituency, but party leaders who were critical of his "bureaucratic" approach wanted him replaced. Senior leader Kailash Sarang, a Sunderlal Patwa loyalist, was angling for the seat, while Aslam Sher Khan, a new entrant to the BJP, was hoping to be nominated from Bhopal or Hoshangabad. Verma did not lobby for renomination; he left it to the party leadership to decide. In the event, although Verma did not have the support of any senior leader, the central leadership felt that if he was replaced by a candidate from one of the rival factions, it would intensify the inner-party feud.

In Hoshangabad, where Arjun Singh is the Congress(I) candidate, the BJP renominated Sartaj Singh in similar circumstances. Sartaj Singh won three successive elections since 1989 from this constituency but there was a delay in announcing his renomination this time because the BJP was keen to field a strong candidate against Arjun Singh, whose nomination is expected to unite the Congress(I) factions in this constituency. And although the Bahujan Samaj Party is going it alone in Madhya Pradesh, it is not contesting from Hoshangabad.

The BJP is trying to make political capital out of the January 12 police firing in Multai, in Betul district, in which 17 farmers were killed (see separate story elsewhere in this issue). Chief Minister Digvijay Singh conceded that the administration failed to prevent the firing. BJP leader Patwa undertook a fast in front of the Chief Minister's residence in Bhopal but called it off after two days - reportedly following a request from Advani. But independent observers and non-political activists blamed BJP leaders for precipitating a situation that led to the firing; they said that BJP leaders had instigated the agitating farmers to pelt stones at the police.

In Gwalior, the BJP has put up Bajrang Dal leader Jay Bhan Singh Pawayya against Madhavrao Scindia of the Congress(I). A keen battle is on the cards: Pawayya is a fiery Hindutva speaker and is expected to make the going difficult for Scindia, who won in 1996 on the Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress ticket. In Jabalpur, the BJP renominated Babu Rao Paranjape although he had asked to be dropped on health grounds. Averting a faction feud in the district unit of the party appears to have been the overriding consideration.

Former Chief Minister V.K. Saklecha, who contested against Arjun Singh in Satna in 1996, did not seek renomination this time. However, another former Chief Minister and Patwa's rival, Kailash Joshi, has been fielded in Rajgarh, against Digvijay Singh's brother Laxman Singh. He replaced Pyarelal Khandelwal, the BJP nominee in 1991 and 1996, who lost on both occasions.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has decided to contest the Rewa and Janjgir seats. It declined Digvijay Singh's request to keep out of the contest in Janjgir, where the Congress(I) has nominated its spokesperson Ajit Jogi. The seat was held by Manharan Lal Pandey of the BJP in the dissolved Lok Sabha, and he has been renominated. According CPI(M) State secretary Shailendra Shaily, the party's primary aim is to defeat the BJP. It is likely to field Om Prakash Gangotri in Janjgir.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

Multi-cornered contests appear inevitable as the secular alliances in the State have fallen apart, and the BJP scents an opportunity to improve its performance.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party-Samata Party combine is hoping to improve its performance in the parliamentary elections in Bihar by capitalising on the split in the non-BJP vote among the secular, democratic formations, which have failed to come together. The ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress(I) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Soren) are on one side (although the seat-sharing agreement between the RJD and the Congress(I) ran into rough weather); the Janata Dal and its Left allies are on another side. Multi-cornered contests seem inevitable, and there is apprehension that it may not be possible to achieve a consolidation of the votes of Dalits, Muslims, backward classes and people of tribal origin, which form the support base of the the Janata Dal-led United Front and the RJD-led Jan Morcha, against the BJP.

In contrast, analysts say, the BJP's support base among the upper-caste Rajput and Bhumihar communities is strong. The Samata Party is seen principally as a party that represents Kurmis and Koeris. Its founder, Nitish Kumar, belongs to the Kurmi community and has influence among these two communities.

In 1991, the undivided Janata Dal and its allies, which included the Left parties and the JMM (Soren), contesting under Laloo Prasad Yadav's leadership in the wake of the national debate on the Mandal Commission's recommendations for backward classes, was victorious in the State. The Janata Dal won 31 of the 54 seats, the Left parties nine and the JMM (S) six. The BJP got only five seats.

But the situation changed in 1996; a split in the anti-BJP vote helped the Hindutva party. The Janata Dal split, and the Samata Party was formed. The Janata Dal and the JMM could not work out an electoral understanding. The Janata Dal and its Left allies won only 28 seats and got a smaller share of the popular vote. The BJP-Samata Party combine increased its tally to 24. Of the remaining two seats, one went to the JMM and the other to the Samajwadi Party.

The seat-sharing agreement between the RJD and the Congress(I) came under strain when RJD president and former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav made a unilateral declaration on January 23 that his party would contest 39 seats and leave 15 for the Congress(I), the JMM(S) and the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP). Of these 15 seats, five were for the JMM(S), two for the SJP and one was for the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP). This left only seven seats for the Congress(I). The Congress(I) initially wanted 12 seats but after Sonia Gandhi's rally in Ranchi on January 20, it held out for 15 seats.

State Congress(I) joint secretary Munna Shahi bristled at Laloo Prasad's "unfair treatment" and said that the Congress(I) should not go in for an understanding with the RJD. "Laloo Prasad Yadav," he said, "is treating the Congress(I) like a regional party." Before releasing the RJP list of candidates, Laloo Prasad reportedly spoke to Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri on the telephone to sort out differences over seat-sharing, but this yielded no results.

There are murmurs of protest from some RJD leaders whose claims to the party ticket have been overlooked. Laloo Prasad's brother-in-law Sadhu Yadav had asked to be nominated from Gopalgunj, but he has not been accommodated. However, sensing further discontent, Laloo Prasad renominated the 16 persons who were RJD MPs in the 11th Lok Sabha, including three former Union Ministers, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, Jainarayan Nishad and Kanti Singh. Laloo Prasad will contest from Madhepura; he has resolved to defeat Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav who was elected in 1996 from the same constituency with the active help of Laloo Prasad.

The possibility of the other secular parties teaming up to fight the elections receded after the U.F. virtually came apart in Bihar. The Janata Dal, the principal constituent of the U.F. in Bihar, was not willing to offer more than three seats each to the Samajwadi Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. In response, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav unilaterally announced that his party would contest 19 seats. Without consulting the U.F. partners, the Samajwadi Party released its list of candidates. The U.F. suffered another blow when the CPI(ML) Liberation released its list of 16 candidates.

Another indication of the woes of the U.F. was the Samajwadi Party's electoral understanding with the Bihar Jan Congress (BJC) led by former Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra who broke away from the Congress(I). The Left parties strongly opposed this move. Significantly, the State unit of the Janata Dal was trying to finalise an alliance with the BJC. The Janata Dal central leadership had expressed disapproval of such a move and the Left parties had warned that they would pull out of the alliance if the State unit of the Janata Dal went ahead with the proposal.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

For the first time, West Bengal will have three political formations in the fray. This situation will obviously help the Left Front as the Opposition vote will be split between the Congress(I) and the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine.

THE political situation in West Bengal appears to have become more advantageous than before to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led ruling Left Front. A split in the Congress(I), which resulted in the formation of the Trinamul Congress led by Mamata Banerjee, has led to the presence of three major players in the elections for the 42 Lok Sabha seats - the Left Front, the Congress(I) and its allies, and the Trinamul Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party combine.

Although there is clear understanding between the Trinamul Congress and the BJP, Mamata Banerjee does not publicly admit this fact. What she has been saying at election meetings is that the Trinamul Congress has, on its own strength, chosen 29 seats and decided not to field candidates in 13 constituencies where the BJP will fight the Left Front and the Congress(I). She said: "There is no electoral alliance with the BJP; we have selected these 29 seats without consulting that party. The BJP's decision not to field candidates against us is absolutely its own." The BJP seems prepared for a compromise with Mamata Banerjee on this issue as it believes that the time has come to spread its wings in West Bengal with the help of the Trinamul Congress. The BJP won no seat in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, and its share of popular vote was just 6 per cent.

After striking a strategic deal with the BJP, Mamata Banerjee apparently wants to maintain a distance from the party of Hindutva. She has rejected the idea of a joint campaign with the saffron party despite requests from its central leadership. The reason for this is the fear of losing the minority support. Mamata Banerjee considers herself a champion of the Muslims; she dreads the possibility of that community distancing itself from her because of her proximity to the BJP.

According to analysts, another factor that forces Mamata Banerjee to keep her support to the BJP on a low key is her hope to emerge as a pressure group at the time of the formation of a Central coalition at the Centre, led by either the BJP or the Congress(I) after the elections. She has chosen not to pledge her support to any particular party at this point. However, she has dropped enough hints that she may turn either to the BJP or the Congress(I), depending on their respective strength and her own position after the polls.

As of now, West Bengal's electorate is, for the first time, witnessing a triangular contest. This development has added a new dimension to the elections. It had always been a straight contest between the Left Front and the Congress(I) in the last two decades, be it Lok Sabha, Assembly, or local body elections. No other regional or national political party could make inroads into the State's politics.

While the Congress(I) is in disarray, the CPI(M) and its allies present a picture of cohesion. At the instance of its leader and Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, the Front has begun to make extra efforts to reach out to the people in order to neutralise any negative effect of incumbency. Negative votes helped the Congress(I) in West Bengal to improve its position in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in 1996. Although faction-ridden, it proved that it was not a spent force; it increased its tally of the Lok Sabha seats from five to nine and Assembly seats from 41 to 82. The Congress(I) has entered into alliances with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Samajwadi Forward Bloc, and offered them one seat each. All Opposition parties approached Subhas Ghising of the Gorkha National Liberation Front for an understanding with him with respect to the Darjeeling seat, but he has stuck to his decision to boycott the elections.

The Left Front has traditionally fought elections on the platform that links local issues with larger political issues. The non-Left parties appear to have gone on the defensive this time because of the CPI(M)'s efforts to highlight in its campaign the possibility of its joining a coalition government at the Centre, perhaps even leading the coalition. The CPI(M) strategy has further strengthened Left Front's issue-based electioneering.

The Congress(I), on the other hand, has resorted to the projection of personalities. The CPI(M), which foresees a drastic decline in the Congress(I) vote-share, hopes to increase its share of seats (it won 23 seats in the 1996 elections) and emerge as the single largest party in the United Front. Among its Left Front partners, the Forward Bloc and the CPI contested and won three seats each in l996, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party won all the four seats it contested. Each constituent has been allotted the same number of seats as in 1996.

In the 1996 elections, the combined vote-share of the Left Front was 47.4 per cent and the Congress' share was 39 per cent. The BJP, which had 11.6 per cent of the votes in the 1991 polls, got only 6 per cent in 1996.

BARUN DAS GUPTA

The Congress(I) has an image problem; the BJP has to contend with issues of internal discipline; the AGP-led front faces the disadvantage of incumbency.

THE ruling Asom Gana Parishad-led alliance has named its candidates for 13 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the State. The remaining seat, Dibrugarh, has been allotted to the Janata Dal. If the Janata Dal does not accept the offer of the lone seat, the AGP will name its candidate for that constituency too. Of the 13 seats for which candidates have been announced, the AGP will contest nine, the Communist Party of India(Marxist) two, the CPI one and an independent one (Diphu-S.T.).

The nomination of Chief Minister P.K. Mahanta's wife Jayashree Goswami Mahanta for the Nagaon seat has caused resentment among some party leaders and in the party's Nagaon district unit. Mahanta has been criticised for overlooking the claims of Union Minister of State for Education Muhiram Saikia, who has won the seat thrice successively.

In 1996, the State witnessed simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly. The Congress(I) won five parliamentary seats and polled 31.64 per cent of the popular vote. The AGP also won five seats, although it polled only 27.17 per cent of the vote. The BJP won one seat and polled 15.92 per cent of the vote. All three parties had contested the 14 seats. The CPI(M) contested only one seat, and won it; it polled 3.94 per cent of the popular vote. The CPI did not contest any Lok Sabha seat.

The political situation is vastly different this time around. The AGP's record in office has not been particularly noteworthy: there is no improvement in the law and order situation, and insurgents are active, particularly in the rural areas. The AGP has also not been able to deliver on its promise of speeding up the development process. Key provisions of the Assam Accord remain to be implemented.

Former Home Minister Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, who had fallen out with Mahanta and was marking time in the AGP, floated a new regional party, the Asom Jatiya Sammelan. Although he was suspended from the primary membership of the AGP, he is still an MLA of that party. If he joins his new party, he will lose his Assembly membership under the anti-defection law. Therefore, he finds himself in the curious situation of not being able to join the party he himself founded. Just how his patently opportunistic move - of remaining a ruling party MLA while posturing as an Opposition party leader - will go down with the people remains to be seen.

The performance of the Congress(I), the main Opposition party, has been no better. It has done little except periodically demand Mahanta's resignation and the imposition of President's rule. Its indignation against Mahanta over the case relating to the fraudulent withdrawal of funds from the government treasuries sounds hollow, particularly because some Congress(I) leaders and their relatives are allegedly involved in it. Any charge it makes against Mahanta is likely to boomerang on it.

The Congress(I) also has to contend with popular disapproval of its role in toppling two United Front Governments which paid particular attention to the problems of the northeastern States and attempted to find a negotiated settlement with insurgent groups that are active in the region. The poor turnout at Sonia Gandhi's election rally in Guwahati on January 21 was an indicator of the Congress(I)'s standing in the people's estimation.

The BJP's support base has doubtless grown among certain sections of the Assamese people. But the BJP in Assam is no longer a disciplined, well-knit unit. Recently, hundreds of party workers gathered at the State party office and shouted slogans against leaders and accused them of "selling" the party ticket. They were angry that the party had nominated "undeserving" new entrants to the party in several constituencies. The party's prospects in the Guwahati and Tezpur constituencies may be affected by infighting.

IBOYAIMA LAITHANGBAM

The call of a Naga insurgent organisation to boycott the elections and the "directive" of the Action Committee of NGOs to Naga Ministers and MLAs to resign have brought to a standstill election-related activity in Nagaland.

WHILE insurgents belonging to the Isaac-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland or the NSCN(IM), have issued a call for the boycott of elections, the Action Committee of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Nagaland and the Naga-populated areas of Manipur have asked all Naga Ministers and MLAs to resign before February 7. The committee has resolved that the Naga tribal people shall not participate in the elections in Manipur (February 16) and in Nagaland (February 23). No political party should take part in election-related activities including the filing of nominations, it said, and warned that those who defied this decision would be given "deterrent punishment".

Highly-placed government sources told Frontline that the NGOs' decision was not actually their own and that they were merely echoing NSCN(IM)'s "directive". If the Naga Ministers and MLAs resign at the call of the NSCN(IM), these politicians may be accused of having a nexus with the proscribed underground organisation. As it stands now, the elected representatives could resign ahead of the parliamentary elections by merely stating that they have done so in response to the call of the people (and not the insurgents).

For these reasons, the Nagaland Government has not been able to proceed with the work related to the elections to the lone Lok Sabha seat in the State and to the 60-member Assembly.

From time to time Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir has said that elections will be held at any cost. However, civil and police officials have not backed him up since they realise the risks involved. Government officials and the people have learnt from experience that security measures in Nagaland cannot be foolproof. Candidates for the Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections have not filed their nominations. No political party, not even local parties, had begun electioneering activity in Nagaland at the beginning of the last week of January. No posters could be seen anywhere. The offices of political parties remained locked. BJP president L.K. Advani was advised to cancel his visit to Nagaland as insurgents would have taken his visit as a challenge.

The NGOs say that in order to ensure that there is no electioneering in Nagaland and in the Naga-populated areas in Manipur, sub-committees involving students and leaders of the tribal people will be formed. A statements jointly signed by A. Maken, G. Gaingam and N.S.N. Lotha said that the Nagas who violate the directives will face trouble.

In Nagaland, no Minister or official is ready to tell mediapersons what they plan to do to counter the NGOs' moves to infringe on the democratic and constitutional rights of the people. The NGOs and the NSCN(IM) have not explained why they want the Ministers to resign and the people to boycott elections. After declaring a ceasefire for three months, representatives of the Union Government and the NSCN (IM) held peace talks. Out of about 50 proscribed organisations in the northeastern region, the NSCN(IM) was the only one which participated in peace talks in response to invitations from three successive Prime Ministers. However, fearing that the talks may result in the creation of a 'greater Nagaland' by merging the Naga-populated areas of Manipur with Nagaland, over five lakh people of Manipur staged a demonstration on August 4, 1997 to "protect the State's territorial integrity".

Taking the hint from the prevailing atmosphere, an NGO of Manipur has issued a press release, interestingly in Nagaland, demanding that the Naga Ministers and MLAs of Manipur resign. An emergency meeting of the elected Naga members of the Assembly, presided over by the then Chief Minister, Rishang Keishing, a Tangkhul Naga, said that they were for the protection of the territorial integrity of Manipur. But they made it clear that they would not resign at the call of a nondescript NGO. But then, the Naga Ministers and MLAs in both States have kept a disturbing silence.

Meanwhile, several Naga politicians are contesting the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Manipur. Meijulung Kamson, a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, will contest the Manipur reserved seat on the Congress(I) ticket. A former Minister, Soso Lorho, will contest the Tadubi Assembly seat on the Manipur State Congress (MSC) ticket. Some other Naga tribal persons, including a woman, are expected to declare their candidature for other seats.

Meanwhile, several political parties have decided not to contest both the Lok Sabha seats and all the five Assembly seats in Manipur in view of their limited influence and the changed political situation. For instance, the CPI is contesting only the general seat for the Lok Sabha, for which it will field a former MP Ngangom Mhondro. It will support a common candidate of like-minded parties for the reserved seat. The BJP is fielding former Minister Holkhomang Haokip in the reserved Lok Sabha seat but is likely to support a common non-Congress(I) candidate for the general seat. Political observers say that the real contest will be between the Congress (I) and the MSC, which was formed after a recent split in the Congress(I). During the tenure of the Congress(I)-led government, Chief Minister Rishang Keishing was accused of doing everything for the vivisection of Manipur's territory and dealing with the ethnic violence with a communal bias. In fact, the August 4 demonstration was basically against Congress(I) policy. Senior Congress(I) leaders admit the mistakes, and Nimaichand Luwang, the Congress(I) candidate for the general seat, told Frontline that amends had been made. Rishang Keishing was toppled from the chief ministership, he pointed out. Besides, he was stripped of the leadership of the Congress(I) legislative party.

However, T. Chaoba, a former Congress(I) MP and now the MSC's candidate for a Lok Sabha seat, says that the Congress(I)'s actions are irrational. According to him, the Congress(I) high command announced his name as the party candidate for the general seat, although he had resigned from the Congress(I) in December and joined the MSC. The Congress(I) has lost much of its popularity. It has only 15 members in the Assembly. Several Congress(I) members at the local body level have joined the MSC. There are few workers left to campaign for Congress(I) candidates. On the other hand, the MSC candidates for the Lok Sabha and the five Assembly constituencies enjoy the support of a growing number of elected members at all levels. The Chief Ministers of Manipur and Nagaland, W. Nipamacha Singh and S.C. Jamir respectively, are in close touch with the Union Home Minister. Moves are afoot to hold the elections with the help of additional security forces. Besides, Nipamacha Singh has said that the first phase of elections will be held in the valley so that during the second phase all the State and Central forces could be mobilised to ensure peaceful polling in Naga-populated hilly regions. But then, it is easier said than done. Armed NSCN (IM) men raid the offices of the Deputy Collectors to burn election material, including electoral rolls. Election Department officials have been warned of death if they do anything in connection with the conduct of elections. In the event, no government employee is ready to do election-related work.

The Central Government has not reacted to these developments. It is understood that the Union Home Ministry may be planning to conduct the elections in Nagaland and the Naga-populated areas of Manipur after the elections in the rest of the country are over. In that case, Central forces can be deployed in sufficient strength to ensure that there is no disruption of the polling process. Meanwhile, tribal politicians are keeping their fingers crossed.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The Left Front looks set to sweep the polls in Tripura; in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress(I) seems better placed than its rivals.

SEVEN Lok Sabha seats are at stake in four northeastern States - Tripura (two), Meghalaya (two), Arunachal Pradesh (two) and Mizoram (one) - that go to the polls on February 16. Tripura and Meghalaya will also elect their Assemblies simultaneously.

Among the four States, the most significant battle will perhaps be fought in Tripura, where the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front came to power in 1993 after overthrowing the Congress(I) which was in power for two terms since 1978. This time the CPI(M) is contesting 54 of the 60 Assembly seats, leaving two seats each to the Communist Party of India and the Revolutionary Socialist Party and one seat each to the Janata Dal and the Forward Bloc. The Left Front appears to be cohesive and is poised to make a clean sweep; the Congress(I), the main Opposition party, beset with factionalism.

The tribal cell of the State Congress(I) has defied the understanding on seats finalised by the central leadership of the party with two parties that claim to represent the tribal people. The cell, headed by State Congress(I) acting president, Kashiram Reang, announced candidates of its own for 13 Assembly seats reserved for people of the tribal communities; it further said that it would field candidates in all the 20 reserved Assembly seats in the State.

As part of the understanding clinched by All India Congress Committee observer Santosh Mohan Dev, the Congress(I) will get only six of the seats reserved for tribal communities, while the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS) will get 10, and the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) four. Reang and other members of the tribal cell went on a fast in front of Congress Bhavan in Agartala demanding that the electoral understanding be scrapped. The demand had the support of another AICC observer, Mizoram Chief Minister Lalthanhawla, who is against the TUJS being given more than three seats.

It appears that for the first time, Tripura will witness triangular contests among the CPI(M)-led Left Front, the Congress(I)-TUJS-TNV grouping, and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP tried in vain to enter into an alliance with the regional outfits by offering them a major share of the seats and by softening its stand on key issues such as infiltration. Now it has fielded candidates in 30 Assembly constituencies. The presence of the BJP and rebel Congress(I) candidates might help the Left Front increase its tally from the 49 seats it won in the previous Assembly elections.

The CPI(M) dropped 10 of the MLAs who won in 1993. Those who will not contest this time include Chief Minister Dasarath Deb and Badal Chowdhury, who won the West Tripura Lok Sabha seat in 1996 by defeating Ashoke Bhattacharya of the Congress(I). The party, however, renominated Bajubang Reang, who was elected from the East Tripura Lok Sabha constituency.

In Meghalaya, the Congress(I) is better organised than the grouping of four parties that oppose it. State Congress(I) president O.I. Nongtu said that the party's election plank would be the overall economic development of the State. The Opposition parties - the United Democratic Party (UDP), the Garo National Council (GNC), the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party - do not have much of a support base. They have also not finalised a seat-sharing arrangement.

In Mizoram, the Opposition has virtually conceded victory to the Congress(I). The Congress(I) has fielded State Finance Minister J. Lalsangzuala for the Aizwal Lok Sabha seat; the principal Opposition party, the Mizo National Front (MNF), has nominated R. Lalthangliana, a sitting MLA. The MNF has been weakened by a recent split and the formation of the Mizo National Front (Nationalist).

In Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress(I) may not face any problem in retaining the two Lok Sabha seats.

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