Broad spectrum

Print edition : May 22, 2009

M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister, at an election campaign meeting of the DMK-led front in Chennai on April 18. K.V. Thangkabalu, State Congress president, is behind him.-M. VEDHAN

T.S. Subramanian and S. Viswanathan

IN Tamil Nadu, which goes to the polls on May 13, it is essentially a contest among the fronts led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), which is contesting alone in all the 39 constituencies in the State and for the one seat in Puducherry.

The DMKs allies are the Congress and the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI). The second front consists of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), apart from the AIADMK. The BJP-led front also has the Akila India Samathuva Makkal Katchi led by actor Sarath Kumar, the Puthiya Tamizhagam and the Naadalum Makkal Katchi as its constituents.

The DMK-led fronts strategy is to paint a broad national picture and attack the Third Front for its inability to project a prime ministerial candidate. At a public meeting at Katpadi in the Arakkonam constituency on April 21 to campaign for the DMK candidate S. Jagathratchagan, Tiruchi N. Siva, Rajya Sabha member of the DMK, said only seasoned politicians such as Karunanidhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could protect India from evil forces and religious fanatics. Siva said: We are sure who our prime ministerial candidate is. Can the Third Front tell us who its candidate is?

At this and other meetings, State Public Works Minister Durai Murugan praised Manmohan Singh for protecting India from the global recession. He also lauded Karunanidhi for introducing the Re.1-a-kg rice scheme.

If there are three issues that hold the key to the electoral outcome in Tamil Nadu, they are price rise, power cut and the Sri Lankan Tamil problem. Touch this stone, Bhuvana, a housewife asked this reporter at a temple at Takkolam in the Arakkonam constituency. The granite block that formed part of the base of the temple tower was burning hot in the afternoon sun. How do you expect us to be inside our home when there is no electricity in summer? she asked.

At Kancheepuram, a weaver was fixing decorative glass stones to the zari of a silk sari when load-shedding plunged the small room into darkness. He has no doubt about the power crisis in the State affecting the outcome of the elections.

Voters in the Kancheepuram, Sriperumbudur, Vellore, Arakkonam, Arani and Tiruvannamalai constituencies in the northern areas of the State are agitated over other issues as well, such as farmers being forced to part with cultivable land for industries, an iron-ore mining project threatening to uproot hundreds of villagers, land sharks grabbing even lake beds and canals, effluents being let into lakes, water bodies deteriorating because of silt, and contract farming being introduced because of the shortage of labour and mechanisation.

WOMEN SUPPORTERS WAVING at the helicopter bringing AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa, at a rally in Sivaganga on April 24.-L. BALACHANDAR

In a paddyfield in a village near Varanavasi in Sriperumbudur constituency, where Union Minister T.R. Baalu of the DMK, is fighting A.K. Moorthy of the PMK, a combine harvester has been hired for Rs.1,300 an hour. There are not enough workers, said a farm hand.

At Parameswara Mangalam village in the Arakkonam constituency, contract farming has come to stay. L. Vasu, one of the farm hands, said that about eight workers were paid a total of Rs.1,000 a day for planting saplings on an acre and they had to finish the work in a day. R. Velu (former Minister of State for Railways) of the PMK is facing Jagathratchagan here. Both sides are equally tough, agricultural labourers said on being asked who stood a chance.

If people in Kunnavakkam and Hanumanthai villages, near Singaperumal Kovil in the Kancheepuram constituency, are angry about their being forced to part with their agricultural land to Mahindra City, a huge industrial zone, hundreds of villagers of Periapaliapattu and other villages in the Tiruvannamalai constituency are in a militant mood over environmental issues. Everywhere in Periapaliapattu are painted boards: Dont destroy the mountains, dont block the rains; Dont destroy the natural wealth, dont ruin the ground water; Crows and sparrows are our kith, mountains and streams are our kin, and so on.

Periapaliapattu and surrounding villages are fighting a project, proposed by the Tamil Nadu Iron Mining Corporation, a joint venture between the State-owned Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation and the Jindal group, to mine iron ore in the Kavuthi and Vediappan hills. Most villagers are angry with the DMK government over the project.

Four elderly women had sought shelter from the heat at the Draupadi Amman temple, the two hills, full of trees, streams and wildlife, providing the backdrop to it. We will boycott the elections, said 85-year-old Pachaiyammal, an articulate leader of a movement to protect the hills. Baghyam, the other woman, said if anyone came to excavate the hills we will tear them apart.

The Tiruvannamalai constituency is in the Vanniya heartland, and the contest here is between J. Guru, the young, firebrand leader of the PMK, and 73-year-old D. Venugopal, a four-time Lok Sabha member of the DMK. The villagers are happy with the assurance given by PMK founder Dr.S. Ramadoss that he is opposed to the project.

At Tirumalai in the Arni constituency, a Jaina centre with exquisite sculptures of Tirthankaras, C. Kumaraswamy, a road worker, is annoyed with rapid urbanisation. Everywhere agricultural land is being converted into plots for houses and this has made people lazy, he said. The electoral fight here is between M. Krishnaswamy, former president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, and Mukur N. Subramanian of the AIADMK.

The steep rise in the prices of essential commodities has robbed the ruling DMK government of a fund of goodwill it earned when it started providing 20 kg of rice a month at Re.1 a kg through the public distribution system. At Palaya Ekambara Nallur in Arni, Syed Pasha makes a tongue-in-cheek statement about the government selling rice at Re.1 a kg through the ration shops when the prices of dal, sugar, chilli, garlic, and so on are on the rise. It is like giving a banana to a child and preventing it from eating it, he said.

If the government is selling rice at Re.1 a kg, salt sells at Rs.7 a kg, a road worker at Tirumalai said. Rice may be sold through the ration shops at Re.1 a kg. But a cup of tea costs Rs.3.

Several voters, such as D. Ravi of Gudiyatham and K. Selvaraj of Keezhvazhi Thunaiyankuppam, both in the Vellore constituency, are angry that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) had degenerated into a farce with the DMK and the Congress using the scheme to garner votes. Wherever they can excavate, they do so and enact a big drama that they are implementing the NREGS, and make money, alleged Ravi.

Another issue that has annoyed voters across the State is a big increase in bus fares by indirect means through the introduction of what are called deluxe, luxury, low-floor, point-to-point and limited-stop bus services. As the DMK sensed this, it resorted to subterfuge. Passengers travelling in government-owned buses in the State were in for a surprise on April 30 when conductors charged them Rs.2 as the minimum fare whereas it ranged between Rs.3 and Rs.7 earlier. No official announcement had been made about the reduction.

Chief Electoral Officer Naresh Gupta reacted sharply to the reduction, calling it a violation of the model code of conduct. There is not an iota of doubt [about it], he said. His office had reported the matter to the Election Commission of India, he said.

The killing of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military bothered many voters and they were angry with the Government of Indias military assistance to the islands army. They were also disenchanted with the DMKs constantly shifting stand on the issue. T. Jothi, 59, an electrician at Vanchiyur on the outskirts of Vellore, was emphatic that Karunanidhis shifting, fluctuating stand on the Tamil problem will not favour the DMK. Besides, he said, everybody knows that the Government of India has given weapons to the Sri Lanka Army.

At Pattavarthi, near Tiruchi, young P. Venkatesan was furious about the Congress being oblivious to the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamil civilians and the DMKs inability to influence the Congress on the issue.

In the opinion of N. Krishnamachari, K.T. Krishnaswamy and K.T. Srivatsan, all belonging to Singaperumal Kovil, the Sri Lankan Tamil problem is not an issue at all in the coming elections. I dont think there is any reaction to the Tamil problem. People are bothered only about the price rise and the power cut, Krishnamachari said.

Krishnaswamy said that even if there were to be a massacre of Tamils on the island, tears might be shed but nothing will happen. According to him, the power cut will be a major issue, for it affected lakhs of people, including industrialists, workers, weavers and housewives.

What worries many voters such as K.E. Ranganathan of Kunnavakkam village, A. Shanmuganathan of Tiruparankuram and Mariammal of Tirumangalam is the role money will play in the elections. A voter in Arni tapped this reporters pocket and said, The rot began when candidates contesting in the municipal elections thrust a Rs.500 note in your pocket.

In the industrial and commercial belt of western Tamil Nadu, stretching from Salem to Coimbatore, the election campaign was dull and in some places almost nil even a week after the faction-ridden Congress released, at long last, its list of candidates, a couple of days before the filing of nominations opened on April 16. It, however, gathered momentum with AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa, addressing massive gatherings in support of the candidates of her party and the front it heads, at Erode and Salem on April 26.

The relatively wealthy region, also known as Kongu Nadu, accounts for seven parliamentary constituencies (Salem, Namakkal, Erode, Tirupur, Coimbatore, Pollachi and Nilgiris) comprising 43 Assembly segments spread over seven revenue districts. Agriculture, industry and commerce are the principal occupations of the people, known for their hard work.

Besides textile, knitwear and garment units, handlooms and power looms, there are foundries and other engineering units that manufacture a variety of items ranging from domestic equipment and components of industrial products to textile machinery here. Coimbatore district, with 813 spinning, weaving and composite mills, accounts for 27 per cent of the over 3,000 mills in the country. Tamil Nadu has 1,912 mills. The district also has to its credit 12,000 small and medium industries.

In the newly formed district of Tirupur are located hundreds of garment-manufacturing units and their ancillaries. A substantial number of these export-oriented units have been hit hard by the recent financial crisis. Not only the fall in export orders but also the irregular and inadequate supply of power has forced most of these units to down their shutters or declare layoffs. As a result, thousands of workers have lost their jobs and an equal number of people have had their earnings cut.

A large-scale reverse migration of the workforce has taken place in the past few months (Frontline, March 13, 2009). It is in this context that the people in this region are facing the general elections.

W.R. Varadarajan, member, Central Committee of the CPI (M), told Frontline that the first two stimulus packages announced by the Union government had not benefited the workers much. The packages did not address the concerns of the common man, he said. There is strong discontent among the public over the policies of both the Union and State governments.

Irregular and inadequate supply of power has added to the worries of the industrial units, he said. This has been particularly bad in the continuous process units. Layoffs, closures, wage cuts and loss of jobs were there even before the export-oriented units in Coimbatore and Tirupur bore the brunt of the recession. The ruling parties at the Centre and in the State are facing the wrath of the affected people.

Today, large units run with temporary workers constituting more than 70 per cent of their workforce. Even those in permanent jobs are given work only for two or three days a week. The workers have nothing to fall back on because there is no worthwhile social security cover or unemployment relief for them, Varadarajan said.

The economic downturn has also hit the automobile, engineering, construction, cement and steel sectors. Small and medium enterprises have shut down in all industrial clusters. The worst affected are micro units that make accessories for big units. Said J. James, district president of the Tamil Nadu Association of Cottage and Micro Enterprises: A substantial number of entrepreneurs engaged in the tiny sectors are in mounting debts and are being harassed and humiliated by the lending institutions for defaults under insurmountable conditions. Our repeated representations to bank chiefs and other responsible persons have failed to provide us any relief.

On top of wage cuts and job losses is the steep rise in the prices of essentials such as rice and other foodgrains, milk and vegetables. Although the one-rupee-a-kilo rice scheme introduced by the DMK government has benefited a large number of the poor, there is also deep concern over the spiralling prices of essential commodities and the rise in house rents. This is likely to reflect in the verdict.

State Congress president K.V. Thangkabalu, in a brief interview to Frontline on April 21 in Salem, where he is seeking re-election to the Lok Sabha, rejected the perception of many analysts that the Congress and the DMK, in power at the Centre and in the State respectively, have been facing the anti-incumbency factor. Describing the achievements of the UPA government as remarkable and phenomenal, he cited the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as two outstanding pieces of legislation initiated by the outgoing government.

He said that the State government had brought in several beneficial schemes. He also referred to Manmohan Singhs announcement about investing Rs.25,000 crore to revive agriculture.

Thangkabalu, who won the Salem seat in 2004 by over 1.75 lakh votes, is facing a formidable rival this time in S. Semmalai (AIADMK), who held the Health and Education portfolios in the Jayalalithaa Ministry (2001-06). There are also 21 others (17 of them independents) in the contest. Infighting in the Congress could work against Thangkabalu.

In the neighbouring Erode constituency, former TNCC president E.V.K.S. Elangovan is making a bid to re-enter the Lok Sabha. Taking him on is A. Ganesamurthy of the MDMK. Also in the field are six other contestants. A section of weavers who form a significant section of the electorate here did not hide their displeasure over what they called Elangovans failure to intervene in the issues involving them in spite of his being the Union Minister of State for Textiles. The main complaint here is that nothing has been done to end the problem of pollution caused by dyeing units.

Twenty-one candidates are fighting for the prestigious Tirupur seat. The principal contestants in this newly formed constituency are S.K. Karvendan (Congress), the MP from Palni, and C. Sivasamy of the AIADMK. Sivasamy, who was a member of the State Assembly, is keen on finding a solution to the problem of effluents from the dyeing units.

A prestigious electoral battle is being fought in Nilgiris (Reserved), where Union Minister of Information Technology A. Raja of the DMK is facing another sitting MP, Dr. C. Krishnan (MDMK). Both are new to the constituency. With the multi-crore spectrum scam casting its shadow on the DMK candidate, the fight promises to be a tough one. The MDMK candidate is said to be banking on the support of estate workers, a substantial number of them Tamils of recent Indian origin repatriated from Sri Lanka. The battle for Coimbatore appears to be mainly between R. Prabhu (Congress), a sitting MP and former Union Minister, and P.R. Natarajan of the CPI(M), a trade union leader. Prabhu won the election in 2004 from Nilgiris and moved to Coimbatore after Nilgiris became a reserved constituency following delimitation.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

AS the 28 remaining constituencies of West Bengal vote on May 7 and 13, all eyes will be fixed on Nandigram and Singur, where land acquisition for industrial projects has been a burning issue for the past two years.

For over a year the Trinamool Congress, aided by Maoists, created a liberated zone at Nandigram in Purba Medinipur district after 14 people were killed in police firing during protests in the wake of rumours of land acquisition to set up a chemical hub there. A bloody turf battle ensued between the Trinamool and the Maoist-backed Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee on one side and supporters of the CPI(M) on the other. On April 16, Trinamool supporters attacked a police team that entered Nandigram on the directive of the Election Commission to make preventive arrests.

We live in constant fear as our supporters continuously fall prey to barbarous attacks, a CPI(M) source in Nandigram told Frontline.

The going will be tough for Lakshman Seth, CPI(M) strongman of the district and sitting Member of Parliament from Tamluk, under which Nandigram falls. In the light of the outcome of last years panchayat elections, this years byelection results, and the recent Congress-Trinamool tie-up, the CPI(M)s position in the region has weakened. The impact may also be felt in the neighbouring Kanthi constituency. Interestingly, the Trinamool candidates in these two constituencies are father and son Suvendhu Adhikari from Tamluk and his father Sisir Adhikari from Kanthi.

At Singur in Hooghly district, where the Trinamools protracted and violent agitation forced Tata Motors to shift its Nano car project out of West Bengal, the CPI(M)s sitting MP, Rup Chand Pal, may not face a serious problem despite the fact that a section of the population remains anti-Left. This is because only a small section of farmers had resisted land acquisition for the project 2,000 out of 13,000; the majority of the electorate is, in fact, disappointed at the lost opportunity for employment and development.

Moreover, following delimitation, the three gram panchayats of KGD Anchal, Basubati and Balarambati, which formed the hub of the Singur movement, now fall in the neighbouring Arambagh constituency, where the CPI(M) won by over 5.9 lakh votes in 2004, the highest margin of victory in those elections. At the most the margin may be reduced slightly, but no way can it swing the result against the CPI(M), a political source in Arambagh told Frontline.

An ominous aspect that has emerged in this round of elections is the Trinamools unholy nexus with the Maoists. It has been reported that Koteswar Rao, polit bureau member of the CPI (Maoist) and who is in charge of the outfits operations in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa, admitted to having assisted the Trinamool in Nandigram in the past. The outfit also supports the Trinamools opposition to the proposed chemical hub at Nayachar. In the Maoist-backed Lalgarh movement, too, Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee shared the dais with Chhatradhar Mahato, leader of the Peoples Committee against Police Atrocities, a Maoist organisation.

Since November last year, after an assassination attempt on Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee near Salboni in Paschim Medinipur district, tribal people led by Maoists attempted to create a liberated zone in nearby Lalgarh on the lines of Nandigram. They refused to allow the police into the area and even threatened to boycott elections in the zone, but relented later with conditions, which included the shifting of polling booths outside the region and the provision of transport to voters on polling day. The movement even spread to Kolkata when they organised a massive armed rally of tribal people on April 24, paralysing the city for hours.

Since its participation in the Nandigram agitation, the Maoist movement in the State has expanded alarmingly, particularly in the backward districts of Purulia and Pashchim Medinipur, and Bankura. Members of the CPI(M) are being eliminated systematically, according to party sources. They said 39 party supporters and local leaders had been killed since the poll dates were announced in March.

In a recent interview to a leading English daily, Koteswar Rao stated that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Lakshman Seth, Deepak Sarkar (Paschim Medinipur district secretary of the CPI(M)) and Anuj Pandey, zonal party leader, were on their hit list.

For the Congress-Trinamool combine, the Lok Sabha elections are nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the 2011 Assembly elections in the State. National issues have hardly been mentioned in their poll campaigns, which almost completely focus on State and local issues. Their success in last years panchayat elections has given them hope of an anti-incumbency factor working against the CPI(M)-led Left Front government. However, in the red fortress of Bardhaman district, in which there are three Lok Sabha constituencies Bardhaman (Purba), Asansol and Bardhaman-Durgapur there is little chance of them making any inroads. In last years panchayat elections, too, the verdict went overwhelmingly in favour of the Left there.

According to Biswanath Das, a landless agricultural worker from Boro Posla village in Bardhamans Bhatar region, the CPI(M) is the only hope for the poor. The CPI(M) is needed at the Centre for the sake of communal harmony and to highlight the voice of the poor, he said. Malik Alam, a farmer in neighbouring Bhumsor village, expressed the same sentiment: Victory for the CPI(M) in Bardhaman is a foregone conclusion; the Opposition hardly has any presence there.

The delimitation process has brought the three key Assembly constituencies of Ausgram, Mangalkot and Ketugram under the Bolpur constituency, giving the CPI(M) candidate there, Ram Chandra Dom, a clear advantage over his Congress rival Asit Mal. These three regions alone will give the CPI(M) an easy margin of 1.5 lakh votes, said Amal Haldar, the CPI(M)s Bardhaman district secretary.

Bolpur was former Lok Sabha Speaker and one-time CPI(M) stalwart Somnath Chatterjees constituency. Following delimitation, it has become a reserved seat, for the Scheduled Castes. Ram Chandra Dom is the sitting MP from Birbhum, where the partys new candidate is Braja Mukherjee. His Trinamool rival is the Bengali movie star Shatabdi Roy.

TRIBAL PEOPLE CARRYING arms protesting in Kolkata against the proposed entry of police into Lalgarh, Paschim Medinipur district, where for the past six months they have been agitating under the banner of the Maoist People's Committee Against Police Atrocities.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The Trinamool has fielded another film actor, Tapas Pal, in Krishnanagar, where his rival is the sitting MP, Jyotirmoyee Sikdar, an Asian Games gold medallist. However, the BJP candidate Satyabrata Mookherjee is also a serious contender here. He won the seat in 1999 and served as Union Minister of State. In 2004, Sikdar won by only 20,387 votes.

It may not be a cakewalk for Mamata Banerjee this time. In the Kolkata South constituency, a seat she has retained since 1991, her victory margin in 2004 was 98,429 as against 2,14,008 in 1999. Her violent agitations against land acquisition have not gone down well with the urban voters, especially those of the younger generation, who want new job opportunities and constitute 35 per cent of the 14 lakh voters in the constituency.

This point was highlighted by her CPI(M) opponent Rabin Deb. The youth of the State, and not just the constituency, want jobs. Her violent resistance to all important industrial projects, such as the one in Singur and the Katwa thermal development project, has disillusioned them, he told Frontline. Moreover, following delimitation, the new contours of the constituency may prove advantageous to the CPI(M). Strong CPI(M) bases such as Behala East, parts of Garden Reach, Tallygunge and the port area now fall within it.

The Kolkata North seat will see an interesting contest between two heavyweights Mohammad Salim of the CPI(M) and Sudip Bandopadhyay of the Trinamool.

In the Congress-dominated Berhampore district, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee will try to retain his Jangipur seat against a new candidate of the CPI(M), Mriganka Bhattacharya. For the Berhampore Lok Sabha seat, the contest will be once again between the Congress strongman and sitting MP, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, and the former MP from the same constituency, Pramothes Mukherjee, of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP).

The Murshidabad seat will witness an interesting contest between the sitting Congress MP, Abdul Mannan Hossain, and the States Animal Resources Development Minister, Anisur Rehman, of the CPI(M). In 2004, Hossain won by 15,480 votes. The factionalism and bickering within the Congress in the region and Rehmans popularity, give the CPI(M) a good chance of regaining the Murshidabad seat, which it won in 1999 by a convincing margin of 1,23,360 votes.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

SOMETIMES the most unusual of issues seem to catch the peoples attention during elections. In Delhi this time it is the arbitrary hike in fees by several public schools. Widespread protests by parents and residents associations have taken over an otherwise lacklustre campaign.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the Congress government of failing to control the high-handedness of the schools. The Congress, while denying the charge and accusing the BJP of playing petty politics, defended itself by talking of the action taken against unaided private schools for the fee hike.

About a month ago a few private schools, defying the State governments order, raised their fees suddenly, taking many middle-class parents by surprise. The schools had demanded an increase of up to 50 per cent in the tuition fee in order to implement the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations on teachers salaries and arrears. Earlier, in January, the Delhi government had created five slabs on the basis of the existing tuition fee, allowing schools a maximum fee hike of Rs.500 a month.

In its campaign, the BJP played up the issue, with some of its candidates, such as Vijendra Gupta (contesting from Chandni Chowk) and Vijay Goel (New Delhi), leading rallies.

The Congress candidate from Chandni Chowk, Kapil Sibal, told Frontline that it was unfortunate to see the BJP candidates, particularly Vijendra Gupta, politicising the tuition-fee issue in order to further their political careers. He said that after the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations, the government had fixed a norm that only 25 per cent of the hike in the salaries of teachers would be raised as fees and the remaining would be borne by the schools. However, since some schools did not adhere to the norm and unfairly raised the fees, they were sent show cause notices, he said.

The matter got worse on April 16 when a Class 12 girl, Aakriti Bhatia, died after an asthmatic attack in one of the posh schools. Her parents alleged negligence by the school authorities and demanded the principals resignation.

Arun Jaitley, BJP general secretary and in charge of Delhi, said the fee hike would be the partys main election issue. If there is one issue that can make the Congress lose all seven seats, it is the mess of the education system it has pushed Delhi into. There has been an exorbitant fee hike, along with the compulsion to pay arrears. The middle class is feeling the pinch. Even as the citys education system is burning, the Neros in the Delhi government are indifferent. The fee hike will be the Congress nemesis, he told a national newspaper.

The BJP has traditionally wooed the middle classes, but this time the focus of both parties was on addressing the issues of the poor. The fee hike came in handy to reach out to the middle classes and government employees, who voted for the Congress in the 2008 Assembly elections. This is for the first time that the party has gone to the polls without stalwarts such as Madan Lal Khurana, Vijay Kumar Malhotra and Sahib Singh Verma. Out of the seven candidates, only Vijay Goel is a prominent face.

Parents and students protest against the arbitrary fees hike, outside the residence of Delhi Lieutenant Governor on April 19.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Meanwhile, the intense lobbying that surrounded the selection of candidates to replace Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar reopened the feuds within the Congress. While J.P. Agarwal, the party president in Delhi for more than a year now and a two-time Lok Sabha member, was the unanimous choice for North-East Delhi in Tytlers place, the choice for South Delhi became so problematic that the high command could take a decision only a day ahead of the last date for the filing of nominations.

The Congress eventually gave in to Sajjan Kumars demand that only someone from his family could get his support in South Delhi. So, Ramesh Kumar, his brother and a former Member of the Legislative Assembly, got the ticket, overriding Sheila Dikshits choice of Yoganand Shastri, now Speaker of the Delhi Assembly. Since the South Delhi constituency is now 92 per cent rural, it was difficult for the Congress to ignore Sajjan Kumar, a popular leader among Jats, who comprise 16 per cent of the population.

In North-East Delhi, the Congress expects J.P. Agarwal to attract the Vaish/Bania votes. The politically powerful Bania community, traditionally BJP supporters, had switched sides in the last Assembly elections. Agarwal who is, in a way, their representative, lost in 1999 from Chandni Chowk, after which the seat was given to Kapil Sibal, who won in 2004.

Another interesting revelation, according to a population survey report by the Congress party, is that Poorvanchalis (migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) comprise 40 per cent of Delhis population. The Congress candidature of Mahabal Mishra, convener of the Poorvanchali cell of the Delhi Congress, in the Jat- and Punjabi-dominated West Delhi is, perhaps, intended to attract this population. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed his only rally in Delhi in Mishras constituency.

While local issues dominate the election campaign in the national capital, it is interesting to see how candidates respond to such an electoral pulse. Most of the advertisements and hoardings of both parties do not have pictures of their national leaders despite the fact that both parties have announced their prime ministerial candidates. The focus is on the candidate; most of these hoardings do not even mention the name of the party.

The BJP candidate from New Delhi, Vijay Goel, said: There are many hoardings of Advaniji and Rajnathji. One has to focus some attention on the candidates as well.

T.K. Rajalakshmi in Shimla and Mandi

THE contest for the four parliamentary seats in Himachal Pradesh is by no means going to be an easy one. The Congress is struggling to retain the three seats it won in 2004 Mandi, Shimla and Kangra and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won Hamirpur, is attempting to repeat its performance in the November 2007 Assembly elections (41 of the 68 seats).

Although the battle for the four seats is primarily a bipolar one, the voters are increasingly showing a tendency to look at candidates of parties other than the BJP and the Congress, and even independents and rebels. It is another matter that most of the alternatives that emerged in the past either tended to dissipate into political anonymity or coalesced into the main political parties. Theoretically, barring the Left parties, represented primarily by the CPI(M) and its mass organisations, no other party has been able to present itself here as a credible alternative to the Congress and the BJP.

In this round of elections, there is no wave in favour of either the Congress or the BJP and political observers contended that the situation was fluid. The people have voted more often on the basis of the State governments performance irrespective of the political formations at the Centre. For instance, the Congress-led government of Virbhadra Singh was voted out when the UPA was in power at the Centre. Similarly, in 2003 the BJP lost badly despite a BJP-led NDA government at the Centre.

The thinking is that if the anti-incumbency sentiment is high against the BJP government, this may find resonance in the Lok Sabha elections on May 13. There is enough reason to believe that the P.K. Dhumal government has not delivered much in the past one and a half years. On the other hand, some political observers feel that a party in power enjoys a natural advantage and in that sense the BJP had an edge over its rivals. It could be a two and two division, said a political commentator.

The Third Front in the State is essentially represented by the Left parties, which have jointly put up a candidate in Mandi. The BSP, which opened its account in the last Assembly elections and managed to increase its vote share as well, was hardly able to retain its hold on the candidates it put up. The lone BSP candidate who won joined the BJP, while those who contested unsuccessfully gravitated towards the Congress. The leader of the BSP, Vijay Mankotia, a former Congressman, is said to have quit politics.

The joint candidate of the Left, Onkar Shaad, a veteran leader of the All India Kisan Sabha, has long experience of participation in democratic struggles in the State. Shaad, who holds a PhD in Horticulture, is from the CPI(M) and is pitted against Virbhadra Singh of the Congress and Maheshwar Singh of the BJP, who has represented Mandi three times.

In 2004, the Mandi seat was won by Virbhadra Singhs wife Pratibha Singh. According to Congress sources, she could not get re-nominated because the high command wanted strong candidates in all the constituencies. Sanjay Chauhan, district secretary of the CPI(M), said that as always neither the BJP nor the Congress was interested in projecting the real issues. He said the BJP government was in complete denial of the nature of the agrarian crisis, using the pretext of the model code of conduct during elections. He said the governments own assessment was that the damage to crops owing to the prolonged drought and the untimely and excessive rain was to the tune of Rs.2,500 crore.

In 2004, the BJP just about managed to retain the Hamirpur seat. Subsequently, Suresh Chandel had to relinquish his membership following the cash-for-queries scam. Now in charge of coordinating the Lok Sabha elections in the State, Chandel is optimistic of a BJP sweep. I won the Hamirpur seat against heavy odds. The circumstances under which I had to resign from the Lok Sabha were also very unfortunate. It was also the partys decision, so I quit, Chandel told Frontline. He was certain that the party stood a good chance of winning even the Shimla (S.C.) seat, which is considered a traditional Congress bastion.

Dhaniram Shandil (second from right), Congress candidate from Shimla, with party leaders Anand Sharma, Vidya Stokes and Virbhadra Singh after filing his nomination papers in Shimla on April 17.-PTI

Of the 17 Assembly segments in the Shimla parliamentary constituency, we won eight, almost the same as the Congress. We hope to better this lead, he said. In fact, in the last two Assembly elections, the runner-up in the Shimla Assembly segment was Sanjay Chauhan, who polled more than 10,000 votes in 2007. The BJP won the seat by a margin of around 2,000 votes, while the Congress candidate came a poor third.

For the Lok Sabha, the BJP has fielded Virender Kashyap, against the twice-elected Dhani Ram Shandil of the Congress. BJP sources conceded that Kashyap was a weak candidate and only if there was a wave in favour of the BJP he would have a chance of winning against Shandil. Virbhadra Singh is himself contesting and he is not likely to give much time in Shimla. We have a good chance, Satpal Jain, BJP leader in charge of Himachal Pradesh, told Frontline. Interestingly, Satpal Jain himself is contesting from Chandigarh and has been unable to devote much time for the State.

As in Mandi, an interesting contest is on the cards in Hamirpur. This is one constituency where the BJP has consolidated its vote bank over the past few elections. In recent years, the combination of Brahmin and Rajput votes has helped it in achieving this. Here the outgoing MP is Anurag Thakur, who is Chief Minister P.K. Dhumals son. He won the Hamirpur seat in the May 2008 byelection after his father vacated it when he took over as Chief Minister in December 2007.

Interestingly, the Congress initially chose to field the cricketer Madan Lal, who belongs to Hamirpur. The decision was surprising as less than a year ago Anurag Thakur won by more than a lakh votes. There was intense speculation that the Congress had gifted away the seat to the BJP by fielding a novice. Evidently, the party did some rethinking. While Madan Lal opted out for health reasons, the Congress put up Narender Thakur, son of BJP heavyweight Thakur Jagdeo Chand. The contest has become more interesting now. Even if Anurag wins with a lower margin, it will be a loss of face for the Chief Minister, said a Congress worker.

But Congress workers are sheepish about the fact that the party had to field a former BJP man to take on the BJP candidate. Sohan Lal, the Congress MLA from Kasaumpti in Shimla, told Frontline that a section of the BJP would also vote for Narender Thakur.

In the Kangra parliamentary constituency, the BJP won 14 of the 17 Assembly segments in the 2007 elections. The image of the seat being a BJP stronghold was dented in 2004 when four-time Congress Minister Chander Kumar trounced former Chief Minister and BJP leader Shanta Kumar. But the resentment against the Virbhadra Singh government was such that in the Assembly elections, the BJP swept nearly all the segments in Kangra.

The BJP has fielded Rajan Sushant, the MLA from the Jawali constituency, to take on Chander Kumar. This is one constituency where social engineering does come into effect and where the votes of the Other Backward Classes and the Gaddi tribal people play a crucial role, said Suresh Chandel, adding that the rest of the State voted according to the party and the individual put up and not on caste lines. While the BJP has put its hopes on Rajput, Brahmin and Gaddi votes, it is aware, from its experience of the Assembly elections, that OBC voters, who form 25 per cent of the electorate, do play a decisive role.

The BJP is hopeful that the 2007 mandate will be reflected in the Lok Sabha elections. It is a proven trend. Whichever party is in government in the State, the electorate votes for that party in the Lok Sabha as well, said H.N. Kashyap, BJP general secretary.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan in Meerut

UTTAR PRADESH has seen many twists and turns in its tortuous electoral journey spread across five phases. Political pundits projections of a run-away victory for the ruling BSP and a momentous performance by the principal opposition party, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), before the first phase of polling on April 16 changed after polling trends suggested a significant revival of the BJP.

The second phase of polling, on April 23, led to the assessment that the BJP had not been able to retain the momentum. The S.P. and the BSP were back as front runners despite the flight of a section of Muslim voters from the two parties in a few seats, Basti among them. The second phase also witnessed the Congress extending its sphere of influence from Amethi and putting up a spirited fight in Sultanpur and Pratapgarh.

In this context, the contest for the last three phases, where 47 seats will be decided, has acquired greater intensity. There is no dominant social or political issue that covers all the 47 constituencies. Local issues, the personality of the candidates and caste equations have impacted constituencies differently.

Muslims have shown a preference for the Congress in more seats than before, but the pundits are uncertain if this will continue until polling day. A predominant number of these seats are in the western region, Awadh and Ruhelkhand, with also a smattering of seats in Bundhelkhand and the central-east region.

The constituencies where the presidents of four major parties are candidates Rae Bareli (Congress, Sonia Gandhi), Ghaziabad (BJP, Rajnath Singh), Mainpuri (S.P., Mulayam Singh Yadav) and Baghpat ( Rashtriya Lok Dal, Ajit Singh) vote in the last three phases. So do Pilibhit, which attracted attention on account of Varun Gandhis controversial speech, and Lucknow and Kanpur. Many of these contests are interesting either because they are one-sided (as in Rae Bareli) or because they are tough (as in the case of Baghpat and Ghaziabad).

However, the following four questions will determine which way the battle swings in these 47 seats: One: How many votes can the S.P. win through Mulayam Singh Yadavs friendship with Kalyan Singh and how many Muslim votes will it lose on account of this association and a variety of other factors?

Two: How far will the BJP benefit from its alliance with the Ajit Singh-led RLD?

Three: How far will the BSP be able to cement its Dalit-Brahmin bhaichara and in how many constituencies can it attract Muslim votes as the strongest force capable of defeating the Hindutva forces?

Four: Will the Congress be able to spread the Amethi-Rae Bareli effect to other constituencies?

There are no definite answers to these except for broad pointers that have emerged from the developing situation. Kalyan Singh will bring in his Other Backward Classes (OBC) Lodh communitys votes to the S.P. in as many as eight constituencies in the Aligarh, Farrukhabad and Etawah regions, bolstering the partys chances.

And, if the trend in Aligarh is an indication, the partys Muslim vote base should not suffer major depletion on account of its association with Kalyan Singh. Here, the S.P. has put up a Muslim candidate, Zafar Alam, an industrialist. Across the constituency, S.P. workers and Kalyan Singhs supporters work together promoting Alams candidature.

The argument of S.P. workers is that by roping in Kalyan Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav is using a discarded bomb to destroy a bomb factory, an allegory for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Kalyan Singhs supporters, on their part, say that their leaders repentance for the demolition of the Babri Masjid is total and unqualified.

Priyanka Gandhi after addressing an election meeting at Balla village in the Rae Bareli constituency on April 22.-ADNAN ABIDI /REUTERS

He has realised that Hindutva and OBC politics do not go together. Now, his only aim is to strengthen OBC and Dalit assertive politics, said Kalyan Singhs son Rajveer Singh to Frontline. But this harmony is not evident in constituencies such as Rampur, Badaun and Aonla. All three come under the influence of Azam Khan, the founder leader of the S.P., who has attacked Amar Singh as the creator of the Kalyan Singh association.

The BJP had great expectations about the alliance with the RLD, but reports from Baghpat, Mathura (where Ajit Singhs son Jayant Chaudhary is contesting) and Ghaziabad suggest that this enthusiasm has not turned into a grand alliance. This is essentially because the alliance has not been able to paper over the clash between Ajit Singhs Jat supporters and non-Jat communities in several constituencies of western Uttar Pradesh. In Ghaziabad, the absence of an S.P. candidate was expected to help the BJP president, but the view as the campaigning progresses is that the S.P.s absence seems to be strengthening the Congress candidate, Surendra Prakash Goel. Gujjars and Muslims constitute the S.P.s core vote in Ghaziabad and by all indications these communities are moving towards the Congress. The overall assessment of the BJP itself about the RLD alliance is not one that points to enhancing the gains in the first phase.

The BSPs hopes for the last three phases rest on the calculation that its core Dalit vote base is strong in 32 of the 47 constituencies. Naturally, this makes the party a strong contender for the tactical Muslim votes, which would go to the candidate most capable of defeating the BJP. This perception, party leaders say, has made its presence felt in seats such as Moradabad, which the S.P. won in 2004.

The appreciation for the Congress has spread across communities in this election, and candidates such as Saiduzzama in Bijnore have come to represent it. Yet, the party suffers from two major deficiencies: the absence of a core vote in many constituencies and the lack of a sound organisational machinery. Clearly, these deficiencies are bound to hamper the partys capability to attract Muslim votes, which can decide the elections in a significant number of seats. So, for the Congress it will be the same story in the rest of the State: more votes, but not more seats.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan in Patna

THREE distinctive trends have become visible in Bihar as the election process moves towards completion, with the last round of polling in the State scheduled for May 7. The most striking among these is the fissures in the once redoubtable Muslim-Yadav (MY) support base of the Lalu Prasad-led RJD in quite a few constituencies. The second is the near-total consolidation of the Extremely Backward Caste (EBC) communities behind Chief Minister Nitish Kumars JD (U). The third significant trend is the revival of the Congress in a number of constituencies owing to the support it is getting from sections of the upper-caste communities and Muslims.

Cumulatively, the three trends signify an advantage to the NDA, which has the JD(U) and the BJP as its constituents in the State. Of the 40 seats, the NDA leadership expects to get more than double the 11 seats (JD (U) six, BJP five) it won in 2004. This can happen only at the expense of the Fourth Front, the other prominent political formation, comprising the RJD and the Ram Vilas Paswan-led LJP, which won 26 seats last time (RJD 22, LJP four).

Whether the Congress revival will actually lead to an increase in its tally of three seats or not, there is little doubt that the party is in the contest in at least half a dozen seats. The spirited campaigning by Congress candidates has the potential to bring it votes of those who would have otherwise supported the Fourth Front or the NDA in quite a few seats. The greater loss is likely to be to parties in the Fourth Front, the Congress electoral partner in 2004.

In every election over the past two decades, the key question was which leader or formation would be able to rustle up a winning combination. This time, initially, the OBC Yadav-Dalit-Dussadh social consortium of the Fourth Front, bolstered by the MY combination, was thought to be a good match for the OBC Kurmi-EBC-upper caste combination of the NDA. However, as the election process advanced the NDAs combination was thought to have greater winning potential.

Several factors have contributed to this assessment, the most crucial being the drain of the Muslim vote from the Fourth Front in many constituencies. There was a sense in the early stages of the campaign that the RJD and the LJP would attract the minority votes even though the JD(U), and particularly Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, was acceptable to Muslims in general. The primary reason for this analysis was that the JD(U) would ultimately help the NDAs Prime Minister candidate and one-time Hindutva icon L.K. Advani to become Prime Minister.

As the campaign progressed, the formation of the Fourth Front, after throwing out the Congress, proved to be a political misadventure by the RJD and the LJP. One of the reasons they cited for throwing out the Congress that the national-level leadership of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had a line of communication open with the JD(U) boomeranged on them in many seats. The refrain from the minority community was that if the JD(U) and the Congress could get together it would prefer them in seats where they had acceptable candidates. The fact that some of the candidates of the RJD and the LJP had local-level anti-incumbency sentiment going against them also contributed to this trend.

The most striking example of this shift can be seen in Kishanganj, where 60 per cent of the voters are Muslims. In the early stages of the elections Kishanganj was expected to return the RJDs Taslimuddin despite the strong anti-incumbency feeling against him. The advent of the local Muslim philanthropist and social activist Maulana Asrarul Haque as the Congress candidate changed this situation.

That Haque has a wide individual following in the constituency was evident in 1999 when he contested the seat as the candidate of the NCP, which does not have much of an organisation in the region. He garnered close to two lakh votes, which helped the BJPs Shanawaz Hussein defeat Taslimuddin by 9,000 votes. This time Haque is seen as a possible winner and not merely a spoiler.

A similar shift of the Muslim vote away from the RJD-led combine is visible in Madhepura, which Lalu Prasad won in 2004, and Supaul, where the former LJP MP Ranjeeta Ranjan is contesting on the Congress ticket. In Madhepura, Taranand Sada of the Congress seems to have gained significant support from the Muslim and Brahmin communities at the expense of the JD(U)s Sharad Yadav and the RJDs Ravindra Charan Yadav.

However, seasoned political observers such as Anisur Rehman Kazmi, Editor of the Urdu weekly Desh Videsh published from Bhagalpur, told Frontline that the challenge for the Congress organisational machinery was to convert this new-found appeal for the party, and the resultant enthusiasm among its workers, into votes.

Senior leaders of the RJD and the JD(U) are unanimous that the Congress does not have the critical electoral mass to carve out victories. They will merely cause us and the NDA a little harm in some constituencies without really altering the final result, said Lalu Prasad to Frontline. Sivanand Tiwari of the JD(U) echoed his words when he predicted that the Congress would draw a blank in this round.

LOK JANSHAKTI PARTY chief Ram Vilas Paswan and son Chirag Paswan campaigning in Hajipur on April 23.-PTI

However, the fact is that the Congress is on course for a revival in Bihar. The NDA and the Fourth Front have suffered a depletion of upper-caste and Muslim votes respectively in other constituencies, too, and the loss has not been to the Congress alone. In Begusarai, the two main formations face this situation at the hands of Shatrughan Prasad Singh, the CPI upper-caste Bhumihar candidate.

The local Bhumihar community leader, Ramjeevan Singh (who had been active in the JD(U) for many years), and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board general secretary, Wali Rehmani, who hails from the nearby town of Munger, have declared their support to Shatrughan Prasad Singh.

Amid such vacillation in the upper-caste vote the silver lining for the NDA is the EBC vote, which is rock solid behind the JD(U). Sivanand Tiwari had stated during the early stages of the campaign that that the EBC communities would stay with his party and that confidence does not seem to be misplaced.

The EBC communities have rallied behind the JD(U) across the State so strongly that even Paswan had to face a stiff contest in his bastion, Hajipur. So fierce was the contest that speculation was rife that Paswan might leave the fight and take shelter in Bijnore, in Uttar Pradesh, as a candidate supported by the S.P., the Fourth Fronts mainstay in that State.

Paswan dispelled this rumour by moving around his constituency on polling day, April 23. It may be difficult for the NDA to undermine Paswans grip over Hajipur, which he has won eight times since 1977 with huge margins, but his walk around the constituency on polling day is perhaps symbolic of the uphill battle the Fourth Front faces in Bihar.

Purnima S. Tripathi in Dehra Dun/Nainital

IT is a low-key campaign in Uttarakhand this time, without any emotive issues, unlike in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. In a State where every second house has either a serving or a retired solder, the coffin controversy touched a raw nerve in 2004 as the State debated whether the charges being levelled by the Congress that the NDA government made money in the purchase of coffins to bring home the bodies of soldiers killed in the Kargil War were true.

However, the BJP won three of the five seats and the Congress and the S.P. one each.

Caste and party loyalties play a big role in Uttarakhand politics, and so far the BJP and the Congress have been the main contenders here, with the former having an edge. This time, however, the BSP too has emerged as a major player.

The Congress is fighting the elections on the development plank, citing the investments worth thousands of crores of rupees that came to the State during N.D. Tiwaris rule. Significantly, the Congresss development plank did not work in the 2007 Assembly elections and it remains to be seen whether it will work this time.

The BJP, on the other hand, has made the UPA governments step-motherly treatment of the State an issue in trying to justify its own poor record on the development front. It blames the Centre for withdrawing the special industrial package that the NDA government had given the State. The package was valid until 2013, but the UPA government withdrew it in 2007, which meant the withdrawal of facilities such as income tax and excise exemption, and cheap power and land to industries. As a result, many big names such as General Motors, Suzuki and Ford shelved their projects planned for the State.

Besides, the Centre withdrew the funds for the third phase of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, and thus over 5,000 villages were deprived of road connectivity. They also reduced our cooking gas and kerosene quota, making it difficult for us to meet the demand in the villages, said Vishwas Davar, the BJPs spokesman, in Dehra Dun.

Davar also cited the seven elections since the BJP came to power in February 2007, including byelections to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly and the civic body elections, for its poor performance vis-a-vis development. With the model code of conduct in force for more than half the time, we have had no time to work, he said.

Nevertheless, the BJP is pinning its hopes on two factors at least to hold on to its present tally: the support of women and defence personnel, who together constitute 80 per cent of the electorate, and the split in the anti-BJP votes. Davar said the partys move to give 50 per cent reservation to women in panchayats had earned it their goodwill, while its promise of giving income tax exemption to defence personnel and fulfilling their demand of same rank, same pension would bring this section also to its fold.

The BSP is likely to damage the poll prospects of the Congress. Unlike previous elections when the BSP had a tacit understanding with the Congress, this time the BSP has fielded its own candidates.

In the Tehri Garhwal constituency, for instance, the BSPs Munna Singh Chauhan is considered a strong candidate. The fact that he has been an MLA of the BJP from the same area for a long time makes him a force to reckon with. He joined the BSP after the BJP denied him the Lok Sabha ticket. Chauhan is expected to cut into Congress candidate Vijay Bahugunas votes.

BJP candidate Jaspal Rana, the shooting champion, contesting from here, has emerged as the clear favourite because of his youthful, dynamic image and his international profile. Tehri has been a BJP seat since 1991 when the Tehri maharaja, Manvendra Shah, won it. It remained with the BJP until 2007 when Vijay Bahuguna wrested the seat from the maharajas son, Manujendra Shah, in a byelection following the maharajas death. This time, the BJP ignored Manujendras claim for the ticket and Rana, a relative of BJP president Rajnath Singh, got selected. Rana runs a shooting academy in Dehra Dun where he provides free coaching to 500 students and is also in the process of setting up a world-class institute of physical education. He is also the brand ambassador of the ONGC. Besides, he hails from the area. The BJP is confident that Rana will sail through.

What also makes the BJP camp confident is the fact that Vijay Bahuguna, despite being the son of late Congress stalwart Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna, has nothing to show as his achievement. His sole claim to fame is a 2.5-minute speech at the U.N. in 2008, which he attended as part of an all-party delegation, said Ravikant Kothari, Ranas shooting coach-turned-political aide.

The neighbouring Pauri Garhwal has traditionally been a BJP seat, with B.C. Khanduri representing it since 1991, except in 1996 when Satpal Maharaj, then a Tiwari Congress nominee, won. On becoming the Chief Minister in February 2007, Khanduri had to vacate the seat and Lt. Gen. (retd) T.P.S. Rawat won from here as the BJP candidate.

T.P.S. Rawat was the Congress nominee in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and he was defeated by Khanduri then. Later he joined the BJP. This time he faces Satpal Maharaj of the Congress, who is known more for his religious discourses than anything else.

The division of anti-BJP votes seems to be taking place in the prestigious Nainital-Udhamsinghnagar seat of the Kumaon area also. Nainital, which is known as the bastion of N.D. Tiwari, is at present represented by K.C. Singh Baba of the Congress. Baba, who has been re-nominated, is up against the BJPs State president Bachi Singh Rawat, who is a four-time MP from the adjacent Almora seat. B.S. Rawat had to shift from Almora because it became a reserved seat after delimitation. He has been a Minister in the A.B. Vajpayee government at the Centre and has done a lot for the area. His prospects are looking up as the BSPs Narayan Pal, a rich businessman, is expected to cut into Babas votes.

Babas chances are also being spoilt by the presence of the S.P.s Thakur Premprakash Singh in the fray. He wields considerable influence among Thakurs in the area and will take away precious anti-BJP votes.

The Congress prospects are getting damaged by the division of secular votes, while the BJPs votes remain intact, said R.C. Sah, a travel and tour operator in Nainital.

The BJP has been winning the Almora seat since 1991, with Bachi Singh Rawat representing it continuously since 1996. The BJP seems upbeat about its prospects here.

The most interesting contest of all is unfolding in Haridwar, which is now represented by the S.P.s Rajendra Kumar. This time the main battle is among the Congress Harish Rawat, the BJPs Swami Yatindranand and the BSPs Mohammed Shehzaad. The substantial Dalit-Muslim combination here has made the BSP candidate emerge the front runner. Besides, the Congress candidate is considered an outsider because he hails from the Kumaon hills. He has represented Almora many times in the 1980s before it turned saffron.

B.C. KHANDURI, Uttarakhand Chief Minister.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Haridwar, incidentally, is the only constituency in Uttarakhand which is fully in the plains and the caste and religious dynamics of Uttar Pradesh politics seem to spill over to this area. It was for the same reason that the BJP lost this seat, which it had held since 1991, to the S.P. in 2004.

It is anybodys guess how much the BSP is harming us, but this division of secular votes is going to hurt us badly, confessed a senior Congress leader in Dehra Dun.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

THE widespread agitation led by the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) against the candidatures of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, both accused in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case, died down after the Congress decided to withdraw them from the electoral fray in Delhi. But then, vendetta politics, which has shrouded agitations for some time, is back in Punjab. What is commonly known as patriarchy versus royalty politics in the State has been the focus of the campaign for the polls scheduled for May 7 and 13. The rivalry between Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, a self-proclaimed leader of the Jat community within the Sikhs, and former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of the Congress, the maharaja of Patiala, has long defined the States political equations.

Neither camp is talking about any significant issues plaguing the State. Here it is not about the Congress winning or the Akalis losing. It is about the pride of Captain Amarinder Singh. We will give our best to ensure Captains victory this time, said a senior leader of the Punjab Congress.

The mood is similar in Badals camp, where his loyalists are canvassing to restore the SAD supremos pride which had received a boost with the defeat of Amarinder Singh in the parliamentary elections in 2004 and the Assembly elections in 2007.

The focal points of rivalry are Bhatinda and Patiala. Amarinder Singhs son Raninder Singh is battling it out with the SADs Harsimrat Singh Badal, the wife of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, in Bhatinda. Raninder has been organisationally involved with the party in the Malwa region for the past few years. Harsimrat rose to fame with her anti-female-foeticide campaign, called Nanhi Chhan. In Patiala, Amarinders wife and sitting MP Preneet Kaur is pitted against a staunch loyalist of Badal, Prem Singh Chandumajra. In this political imbroglio, one party whose prospects have been severely affected is the BJP. After having increased its tally from three in 2002 to 19 in the 2007 Assembly elections, the BJP was hoping to contest more seats in the parliamentary elections but had to settle again for three Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur. With three apparent outsiders being fielded for these seats, there is great resentment within the State BJP unit.

Former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu and actor Vinod Khanna are the chosen ones for Amritsar and Gurdaspur respectively. Former bureaucrat Som Prakash has been fielded from Hoshiarpur on the BJP ticket. Sitting MP Avinash Rai Khanna, the only State leader who was given the party ticket to contest from Hoshiarpur in 2004, was not even considered this time since the seat has become a reserved constituency post-delimitation. Even State BJP president Rajinder Bhandari was ignored, said a BJP worker.

The BJP, until recently, was comfortable playing second fiddle to the SAD in the ruling alliance. However, the relationship started souring when Badal started inducting many of his family members into the Cabinet. Since both the BJP and the SAD had made dynasty politics an electoral plank against the Congress in all the elections, senior Badals political indulgence, including Sukhbir Badals anointment as Deputy Chief Minister, did not go down well with the BJP. Even after its impressive performance in the Assembly elections, the State BJP leaders continued to suffer neglect as Badal enjoyed a close rapport with the BJPs central leadership. Moreover, despite the party being in power, BJP workers allegedly faced harassment and violence at the hands of SAD workers in the panchayat and municipal elections.

With rampant politicking, socio-economic issues have been increasingly sidelined. The ruling combine has been very lax in procuring wheat and paddy produced in the State. We have had economic development in the State because of the Green Revolution but it is very backward in social development. Religion, vendetta and factional politics seem to have taken precedence over all the other issues, said Jagrup Singh Sekhon, a political researcher based in Amritsars Guru Nanak Dev University.

Leader of the Opposition in the State Rajinder Kaur Bhattal agreed: We lag behind a lot in education and health and we will take up these issues.

CONGRESS GENERAL SECRETARY Rahul Gandhi (second from left) holds a sword presented to him by Raninder Singh (right), the party's candidate for the Bhatinda seat on April 14.-NDER NANU/AFP

The Left parties, whose electoral prospects are not very bright, seem to be the only ones raising such issues in campaign rallies. Charan Singh Virdi, State secretary of the CPI(M), said: Declining landholdings in the rural areas, unemployment among the youth, and drug trafficking have become severe problems. Punjab has to repay a loan of Rs.57,000 crore to the Centre and our growth rate is much less than the national average. As much as 60 per cent of all our small and medium-scale industries have shut down.

The CPI (ML-Liberation) candidate from Sangrur, Tarsem Jodhan, said: We will raise issues like minimum wages for agricultural workers and proper sanitation and other facilities for them in the villages.

There is also widespread anger among government employees over the States failure to implement the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations. The development-hungry urban population can also influence the outcome of the elections. Amarinder Singh told Frontline that his party would concentrate on the urban population and its concerns as he thought it had been the deciding factor in the Congress defeat in the Assembly elections. The Congress lost almost all the urban seats.

Meanwhile, in an apparent effort to get rid of factional politics and strengthen the organisation, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, for the first time, chose three Youth Congress leaders to contest from three constituencies. The most prominent among them is Ravneet Singh Bittu, grandson of former Chief Minister Beant Singh, who is contesting from Anandpur Sahib. His candidature is significant as he is also the first elected president of the Punjab Youth Congress (PYC). The other two are PYC vice-president Sukhvinder Singh Danny (Faridkot) and former PYC president Vijay Inder Singla (Sangrur).

Another constituency to look out for is Khadoor Sahib. Named Tarn Taran before delimitation, this seat has been a stronghold of the Akalis since the days of the Khalistan movement. Tarn Taran was proclaimed the capital of Khalistan at that time. After delimitation, the urban tracts from Ferozepur and Jalandhar were pulled into the new Khadoor Sahib constituency. The battle here is between two sitting MPs: three-time MP from erstwhile Tarn Taran Ratan Singh Ajnala is taking on Rana Gurjeet Singh, the Congress MP from Jalandhar, which has now become a reserved constituency.

The Congress seems all set to cash in on the anti-incumbency factor against the SAD-BJP ruling combine. However, Dr. Pramod Kumar, a political observer based in Chandigarh, said that though the Congress seemed to have better candidates, the party might lose the edge if it did not raise real issues affecting the people. It should remember that the vote shares of the rival parties in all elections since the formation of the State in 1966 have been only marginally different. In the 2004 elections, for instance, the SAD was only a nose ahead with 34.28 per cent in comparison to the Congress 34.17.

Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar

THE first round of elections in the Kashmir Valley indicated how the mood of the people had changed in the five months since the Assembly elections. The four South Kashmir districts of Pulwama, Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam recorded a 56 per cent turnout in the Assembly elections held in December. But in the third phase of elections to the Anantnag-Pulwama Lok Sabha constituency on April 30, just 26 per cent of the nearly 16 lakh voters turned up. In some areas the voter turnout was as high as 55 per cent whereas in some others it was a mere 3 per cent. Some of the booths in Pulwama and Anantnag did not poll a single vote.

Wherever the turnout was high the people said they were voting because of the local legislator. In those areas where it was low, the writ of the separatists, who had called for a boycott, ran. Those who did not participate were categorical in saying, We are with the boycott.

Also, the militants did not fire a single bullet in the last elections, which emboldened people to come out and vote. But this time they killed a few political workers, causing fear in the minds of the people.

Absar Ahmad, a young graduate in Achabal area, said the Indian government had been exploiting the participation in the December elections at the international level, saying that Kashmiris had no problem with New Delhi. We voted last time for day-to-day problems and this time we hardly bother who is going to be our MP. What can he do for us? he asked.

There are others like him who feel disenchanted with the exercise. We braved the boycott call last time and voted, but nothing has changed. The roads are as bad as ever and there is no respite from our difficulties. Why should we waste our time? said Mohammad Ramzan, a villager in Akhran, who was busy working in his orchard.

Gull Mohammad Wani, who teaches political science at Kashmir University, lists three main reasons for the low turnout: Growing religious extremism in Pakistan, which has a direct impact on Kashmirs polity; peoples tendency to maintain a distance from parliamentary elections, which are seen as synonymous with New Delhi; and the State governments failure to make any visible impact on the ground.

Campaigning, however, was intense in Anantnag, with Peer Muhammad Hussain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Mehboob Beg of the National Conference (N.C.) taking each other head on. While the PDP won 12 of the 16 Assembly segments in the constituency, the N.C. got one, the Congress two and the CPI(M) one.

So the N.C. put all its resources together to make a dent in the PDPs vote share this time. It invited Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi to campaign for Beg. The voting pattern, indeed, indicates that the N.C. might have made an improvement this time as most of the segments held by the PDP registered low turnout. For instance, Tral, which the PDP won last time, recorded the lowest turnout: 3 per cent. It has a significant number of Jamaat-e-Islami cadre who, according to reports, favour the PDP.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah sounded confident of a win. I could see a change this time. We had a good participation in the public meetings though we lost 12 seats in the Assembly elections, he told Frontline.

Besides, the State Information Department had launched an aggressive advertisement campaign ahead of the Assembly elections, asking people to exercise their franchise. But this time no such effort was made to woo voters. Many analysts feel the ruling alliance was silent because the boycott would eventually favour its candidates. Instead, the separatist parties had a field day using the electronic as well as the print media to send across their message. However, they were not allowed to launch a boycott campaign.

In all likelihood, this trend may replicate itself in the remaining two phases of polls, in Srinagar and Baramulla. Srinagar city has even otherwise not obliged political parties with huge turnouts in the past elections. In the Assembly elections the turnout did not cross 25 per cent. This time anti-poll demonstrations had started rocking Srinagar much before the polls were announced.

OMAR ABDULLAH, JAMMU and Kashmir Chief Minister.-PTI

Days ahead of the April 30 phase, the authorities clamped a curfew in Srinagar to thwart the protests. Though the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference initially distanced itself from the boycott, pressure from the United Jehad Council, an amalgam of militant outfits, forced Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to toe the line adopted by the hard-line leader Syed Ali Geelani. And Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chairman Yasin Malik could not stay away from this shift. He too launched a campaign in South Kashmir but he was put under house arrest along with the Mirwaiz and Geelani.

The boycott has enthused the separatist political camp, which got a drubbing with the huge voter turnout in December. But it does raise a question as to what extent the mainstream political parties have been able to make use of the change in the mindset of the people. If in five months their ground is slipping, the future is not difficult to imagine.

Which way the next two phases will go remains to be seen. In Baramulla, all eyes are on the former separatist Sajjad Lone who is contesting the elections. How much support he can muster will also determine the acceptability of separatists in the mainstream.

If he wins, New Delhi can lure the rest by saying that anything is possible under the Indian Constitution. And if he loses it can keep saying that separatists do not have a representative character. Both ways New Delhi will be in a winning position, but the larger question is of ensuring peoples participation in the electoral process to safeguard the credibility the Indian system earned in the Assembly elections.

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