Ticket troubles

Print edition : December 05, 2008

The Congress has suffered an embarrassment in the Margaret Alva episode. The BJP banks on this and the BSP factor.

in New Delhi

Margaret Alva. Her outburst led to her resignation as party general secretary.-R. ESWARRAJ

INTERNAL rumblings in the run-up to elections and their manifestations in the larger political sphere are not new to the Congress. The party has lived through this in every election since the first one. But even with this track record, Margaret Alvas accusations of malpractices in ticket distribution came as a serious embarrassment for the party. The Congress leader from Karnataka alleged in an interview that the party ticket had been up for sale during the Karnataka Assembly elections in May and that relatives of more than 20 leaders had been given the ticket in the current round of elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir. She also questioned the denial of the party ticket to her son and former Union Minister C.K. Jaffer Shariefs grandson, asking why they should be denied nominations when relatives of other leaders were being given the ticket.

The allegations embarrassed the leadership, especially leaders considered close to Sonia Gandhi. Margaret Alvas outburst is seen as having the coterie that is believed to have formed around the party president as the target. No Congress worker will dare name the coterie in public, but many say in private that the clique is headed by a senior leader from Gujarat, with two senior leaders from Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh respectively playing a big part in it. Unless their influence is curtailed the party cannot really progress. This realisation is widespread. That is why so many leaders in Karnataka, including former Deputy Chief Minister Siddharamaiah, made bold to support Alva, a leader from Madhya Pradesh told Frontline. There are many in the Congress who believe that the action against Margaret Alva was limited to allowing her to resign as party general secretary and dropping her from the Congress Working Committee because Sonia Gandhi was convinced that there was some merit in her allegations.

There is a feeling in the Congress that the allegations have done some damage to the Congress campaign, though no one would admit that in public. Before the Margaret Alva episode, the leadership thought that the party was making up for lost ground in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh as well as in Congress-ruled Delhi. It was also holding on to the lead against the ruling BJP in Rajasthan right from the start of the campaign.

This was happening, said a senior South Indian leader, in spite of obvious disadvantages: The party was not in a position to highlight the gains of the Manmohan Singh government properly because the issues of internal security and price rise were dominating popular opinion. Still, we were doing well on the ground and were in the process of ironing out things even in Madhya Pradesh where the party was divided between factions led by Arjun Singh, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijay Singh and Suresh Pachauri. But that process has been impacted negatively by this development. If nothing else, the embarrassment caused by the Alva episode has slackened the pace of our ground retrieval in three crucial States.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been quick to try and capitalise on the issue and has added the cash for ticket scam to its campaign repertoire. The BJP believes that the issue has caught voters attention, particularly in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In Rajasthan, however, Margaret Alvas outburst has had a different effect. BJP leaders who did not get the party ticket seem to have taken their cue from it. In the Khetri constituency, supporters of the sitting MLA, Ram Gujjar, alleged that the seat had been sold to a bidder with tonnes of money. There are indications that similar allegations are likely to come from other parts of the State. An added motivation for such allegations may arise out of the factionalism that marks the State unit, with groups owing allegiance to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, former Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and former Union Minister Jaswant Singh.

According to the political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi, that money plays an important role in the selection of candidates in North India is well known. Almost all parties, the Congress, the BJP and even the Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP], have perpetuated this practice, and it is virtually impossible for any of them to adopt a holier than thou attitude. Because of this, ground-level campaigners may find it difficult to push a self-righteous line though leaders at the higher level may try to advance it, he said. Tyagis view is that while the Margaret Alva episode has caused some embarrassment to the Congress and triggered some problems in the Rajasthan BJP, it is not bound to have a decisive impact.

The BJPs internal assessment at the national level reflects the political and organisational manifestations in different States. According to this assessment, the party is unmistakably ahead in Madhya Pradesh and has an edge in Chhattisgarh and Delhi. According to a senior national leader, Rajasthan is where the party has an uphill task. But some leaders believe that the presence of BSP candidates in a large number of constituencies will enable the BJP to hold on to Rajasthan. Indeed, the BSPs presence is thought to be a positive thing for the party in the other three States too. The BSP effect will be most beneficial in Delhi, followed by Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh, there are certain areas where the BSP can affect us negatively, said a BJP leader from South India.

The Bharatiya Jan Shakthi (BJS) party led by former BJP Chief Minister Uma Bharati is also impacting the saffron party negatively. The BJS effect, it is believed, will be felt in some 20 seats.

The leadership of the BSP, the third prominent player in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh, thinks the calculations of the two major players will go awry in all the four States. There cannot be a government in any of these States without our support. That is the way things are developing, said Ambeth Rajan, Rajya Sabha member of the party.

It remains to be seen how the calculations of the various players are borne out at the hustings. But one thing is certain. Midway through the campaign, the hopes of all the major players are on the rise, though the Congress has had to face an unseemly embarrassment.

T.K. Rajalakshmi in Jaipur

IT is always a case of jaat (caste) versus janata (people) here. Most political parties prefer the former at the time of elections, observes Bhanwarlal, a vendor in Jaipur. However, in the 13th Assembly elections in Rajasthan, caste may well play a determining role in assigning the ticket but issues will matter more in the voting on December 4, political observers say.

The Tilak, Tarazu, Talwar triad symbolising the consolidation of upper-caste (Brahmin, Bania and Rajput) votes may also not work in favour of either of the two principal contenders, the BJP and the Congress. The BSP, which had two legislators in the previous Assembly, is contesting in all the 200 seats this time and is expected to field candidates from all castes.

Farmers at a meeting in Sri Ganganagar district in 2004. Several incidents in the past five years, such as the police action against agitating farmers, have alienated huge sections of the electorate from the BJP.-R.V. MOORTHY

The Samajwadi Party, too, has announced its intent to contest from all the seats, with party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav claiming that his party will help form the government in the State. There are indications that the ruling BJP may face an uphill task in retaining the 120 seats it won last time and that the Congress, too, may not attain a clear majority.

In 2003, the Congress fared poorly though there was no apparent wave against the Ashok Gehlot government. Caste alone could not have caused such a debacle. In fact, no pollster could gauge the strong undercurrent of resentment against the incumbent government. More important, the resentment against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre did not translate into votes against the BJP in the State. Likewise, the Congress is now hopeful that any anger against the Central government led by it will not have any effect on its prospects in Rajasthan.

In 2003, the electorate did not perceive the Congress to be a unified force compared with the BJP, which, despite its own weaknesses, threw its weight behind Vasundhara Raje. But this time, several incidents in the past five years have alienated huge sections of the electorate from the BJP. Police firing killed agitating farmers in Sri Ganganagar and Tonk districts. The Gujjar agitation for Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) status took a violent turn and more than four dozen people were killed in police action. There are at least 17 constituencies spanning seven districts where the Gujjar vote can impact the prospects of any party.

There were also several attacks on the minorities in the State, the most notorious one being that of Walter Masih, which was recorded live on camera. The government also enacted a law checking forcible conversions, alienating the minorities further.

The Congress came out with its complete list of candidates on November 8. On the other hand, the complete list of BJP candidates was awaited even on November 11 though the party maintained that there would be 60 new faces because of the delimitation exercise.

Nonetheless, on November 6, with the clarion call of Jai Jai Rajasthan, the BJP launched its campaign in the presence of several party heavyweights including the prime ministerial aspirant L.K. Advani. Also present were leaders in charge of the State, M. Venkaiah Naidu and Gopinath Munde, party president Rajnath Singh and former Union Minister Jaswant Singh.

Advani launched a blistering attack against the Centre on terrorism, inflation and recession, perhaps reminding the electorate that the Lok Sabha elections were round the corner and that the voter should look beyond State issues. Controversies surrounding the Ram Sethu issue and the Amarnath Shrine Board were also referred to in good measure, indicating that the party had not forsaken its core Hindutva agenda. Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje chose to counter the corruption charges the Congress had levelled against her government.

Overall development is to be the thrust of the BJP campaign, which will highlight the governments achievements in generating employment, making electricity available and empowering women. The failure of the Central government to check price rise and terrorism is a stick the BJP is using to beat the Congress with.

Anil Chaturvedi, vice-president of the State unit of the BJP, does not seem to think there is any anti-incumbency factor working against the government. The police action on the agitating Gujjars, according to him, will not be an issue. We did not disturb the OBC [Other Backward Classes] quota but gave an additional 5 per cent reservation to Gujjars along with other economically backward communities.

The Gujjar community is happy as a Bill was passed by the Assembly. The fact that the Gujjars were killed does not matter to the voters; what matters is that we got the Bill for them, he said. The BJP is also confident that Meenas, an influential S.T. community, are by and large with it.

However, a party insider said that though the BJP might put on a show of great unity, the fact that leaders were sitting separately to discuss potential candidates gave a different picture altogether.

The Congress may have scored a point in declaring its candidates in advance, but the fact that the Pradesh Congress Committee office was set upon twice by disgruntled party men cannot be ignored. Then, senior Jat leader Parasram Maderna took his woes to the party high command after the first list was out, claiming that his men were not adequately represented.

Though Gehlot is the leader of the party in the State, he is still not officially declared the chief ministerial candidate as the party fears it will alienate castes other than his, especially the numerically strong Jats. This time the party is keen to tap the minority vote bank as well.

Issues such as corruption and the worsening law and order situation form the central plank of the Congress campaign. The party has put out advertisements in leading newspapers, highlighting the unemployment, water shortage, debt burden, land mafia and crimes against women in the State. Congress spokesperson Satyendra Singh said the party had prepared a list of all the wrongdoings of the Vasundhara Raje government and was going to use every conceivable form of campaign.

Even BJP workers say that the Congress is going to form the next government, said Raghuveer Meena, Congress legislator from Sarada in Udaipur. He said the Vasundhara Raje government had done little for farmers during the drought. They are trying to take the credit for the NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Act], which is a Centrally funded scheme, said Meena, adding that Gujjars would vote against the BJP.

The Left parties are contesting more seats this time than in previous elections. The prolonged farmers struggles led by the Left parties, mainly the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in the Sri Ganganagar and Hanumangarh belts, and Bikaner, Sikar and Nagaur, are expected to fetch some dividends this time.

The campaigns by the CPI(M) to make NREGA a reality has also been one of the reasons for its decision to contest from 34 seats. The reason why we are contesting from this many seats for the first time is because we feel that we have done good work in these areas, said Rajendra Shukla, a member of the partys State secretariat.

The CPI(M)s Amra Ram, who has been elected repeatedly from Dhod in Sikar, will contest from Data Ramgarh this time because of the delimitation exercise. Data Ramgarh is the constituency represented by former State Congress chief Narayan Singh.

Het Ram Beniwal, another stalwart of the CPI(M) and who led the farmers agitation in Sri Ganganagar successfully, is the candidate from Sadul Sheher. Last time he lost by a thousand votes. There is little doubt that the CPI(M) and its agrarian front played a crucial role in putting the issues of farmers centre stage.

The development indicators for the State are not very optimistic and will be a concern for the BJP though a section of the urban voter is happy that the government has done a lot by way of improving infrastructure and beautifying cities. But the lack of development elsewhere and the corruption could present serious challenges before the ruling party.

Sushanta Talukdar in Guwahati

NO door-to-door campaigns, no musical road shows, no feasts, no separate public rallies. These are some of the restrictions imposed on political parties by the Mizoram Peoples Forum (MPF), an organ of the powerful Mizoram Presbyterian Church. This has made electioneering in Mizoram low-key and colourless compared with the 2003 Assembly elections. However, the battle is tough this time in this tiny north-eastern State with the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) trying to defend its 10-year-old bastion against the Congress in the Assembly elections scheduled for December 2.

ZORAMTHANGA, CHIEF MINISTER of Mizoram.-ATUL YADAV/PTI

The third player is the United Democratic Alliance (UDA), comprising the Zoram Nationalist Party (ZNP), the Mizoram Peoples Conference (MPC) and the Zoram Kuthnathawktu Pawl (ZKP), a platform of farmers. The UDAs presence has made it difficult for psephologists to predict an outcome.

The MNFs main slogan is development. Our main plank is continuation of the great development activities initiated by the MNF government over the past 10 years and finishing the unfinished task of development, Chief Minister and party president Pu Zoramthanga told Frontline. In the present 40-member Assembly, the MNF and its ally, the Maraland Democratic Front (MDF), have 23 seats, followed by the Congress (11), the MPC (3) and the ZNP (2). There is one independent member. The Chief Minister is confident that his party has overwhelming popular support and that the MNF will be voted back to power for a third term.

Describing the health care scheme introduced by his government as unique, Zoramthanga said it covered the entire population of Mizoram. He added that Mizoram was the most peaceful State in the country and that it had been made possible by the MNFs good governance.

Zoramthanga announced the names of the God-fearing candidates at the MNF general headquarters, or Hnam Run, on November 6. The MNF will contest from 37 seats. It has conceded two seats to its ally, the Mizoram Congress Party (MCP), and one to the MDF. Zoramthanga will contest from Champhai North, which he represents, and also from Champhai South. Both constituencies are close to the India-Myanmar border. In 2003, Zoramthanga contested from Champhai and Kolasib and won from both seats.

The Congress has promised to undertake massive economic reforms aimed at alleviating the condition of farmers and to create income-generating avenues for the weaker sections. However, its main election plank is corruption. Pradesh Congress Committee president and former Chief Minister Lalthanhawla asserted that the people would throw out the MNF over the rampant corruption and misuse of the public exchequer. Lalthanhawla, who has been projected as the partys chief ministerial candidate, is contesting from two constituencies, South Tuipui and Serchhip.

The party has fielded 38 candidates, leaving two seats for its ally, the Hmar Peoples Conference (HPC). Lalthanhawla said that the tie-up with the HPC would help the Congress in five other seats. We are going to get an absolute majority and come back to power, Lalthanhawla said. He hoped that electioneering by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi in the last leg of campaigning would improve the partys prospects.

The UDA has projected former Chief Minister and veteran politician Brigadier T. Sailo as its chief ministerial candidate. Sailo had a brief stint as Chief Minister in his first tenure, from June 2, 1978, to November 10, 1978, but held the office for a full term from 1979 to 1984. Mizoram was at that time a Union Territory.

In 1986, Lalthanhawla stepped down as Chief Minister to make way for the then MNF president, Laldenga, who had led a two-decade-long underground insurgent movement from 1966 to 1986, to head the MNF-Congress interim government after the signing of the Mizo Accord on June 30, 1986. Lalthanhawla became Deputy Chief Minister in the Laldenga Ministry.

The MNF became the first insurgent group to form the government in an Indian State when the first full-fledged MNF government was installed in 1987. The MNF came to power with 24 of the 40 Assembly seats, followed by the Congress with 13 and the Peoples Conference with three. In 1989, the Congress recaptured power and Lalthanhawla became Chief Minister again; he went on to hold two terms from 1989 to 1998.

The Congress is trying to woo peasants with the campaign that the funds that were allocated by the Centre for providing relief to farmers hit by the recent Mautam have not reached many people. The allegation is ironic, because the ruling MNF grew out of the Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF), which was formed in response to the Mautam of 1958-1959. (Mautam is a famine that follows the flowering of a particular variety of bamboo, at intervals of 47-50 years over a wide range. The flowering leads to an increase in the populations of rodents and insects, which finish feasting on the bamboo seeds and then turn to other crops.) Zoramthanga was one of the front-ranking underground leaders.

The MNF counters the Congress campaign by telling voters that though the Mautam resulted in acute food shortage and a famine-like situation, there was not a single starvation death this time, unlike in the previous Mautam, thanks to the timely and effective intervention by the MNF government.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan in Raipur

COMPETITIVE populism is the name of the game in Chhattisgarh, where Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in two phases on November 14 and November 20. The ruling BJP and the principal opposition Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance have been engaged in a contest of promises. Major issues that concern the people, such as programmes to create livelihoods for the poor and measures to improve the security climate, have been pushed to the background. This, in a State where more than a thousand people have been killed in the past four years, most of them civilians, in repeated extremist attacks and in conflicts between the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and Salwa Judum, a vigilante group.

This exercise of offering sops started with the introduction of a government scheme, about 10 months before campaigning started, to provide rice at Rs.3 a kilogram for families below the poverty line.

CONGRESS GENERAL SECRETARY Rahul Gandhi, former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and party candidate Mahendra Karma at a rally in Dantewada constituency in the naxalite-affected Bastar district of Chhattisgarh. Karma is the founder of Salwa Judum, the anti-naxalite vigilante group.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Soon afterwards, the Raman Singh-led BJP government announced that salt would also be provided under the scheme, at 25 paise a kg. A scramble followed to obtain cards that marked out families as eligible for the scheme. The cards were coloured saffron, the colour associated with the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. As the months wore on, the BJPs banners, posters and media advertisements turned the scheme into an electioneering tool, seeking votes in the name of Rs.3 rice and 25 paise salt.

The partys election propaganda reminded the people that the State government had earmarked Rs.945 crore to make available 35 kg of rice every month to the approximately 36 lakh families belonging to the BPL category

The Congress initially opposed the scheme, saying it was unproductive and was a move to gloss over the real problems of the State. But by the time the party got around to publishing its election manifesto, it had fallen to the lure of populism.

The manifesto announced that if the party was voted to power, Raman Singhs record would be bettered and all ration-card holders would get rice at Rs.2 a kg. Not to be outdone, the BJPs manifesto promised rice at Re.1/kg and free salt. Other promises included interest-free loans in the agricultural sector and free electricity to farmers with 5 horse power pumps.

The BJP describes its freebies as measures to control the ill-effects of the inflation and price rise that the Manmohan Singh government has inflicted on the nation. The State Congress rejoinder is that money for the rice and salt scheme was advanced by the Central government. The Raman Singh government, it says, is only a facilitating agency. It also claims that the ruling party is corrupt.

Candidates have come up with their own sops during electioneering. In the Raipur Rural Assembly seat, the BJPs Nandlal Sahu and the Congress Satyanarayan Sharma have promised to upgrade the small town of Beergaon, some 10 km from Raipur, into a corporation. Beergaon is at present a municipality.

In Dantewada, where naxalites have a strong presence, the police have registered a first information report (FIR) against Mahendra Karma, senior Congress leader and founder of Salwa Judum: he allegedly tried to bribe voters with cash. Karma, who is also the Opposition leader in the Assembly, is facing a stiff electoral battle in a constituency that was once considered his bastion.

This time, the Communist Party of Indias (CPI) Manish Kunjam is putting up a strong fight and reportedly has the support of some naxalites who do not want to see the founder of Salwa Judum returned to the Assembly. Karma says that the money he distributed was not meant as bribes but constituted payment for workers he had hired.

A certain cynicism marks the campaign of the main parties. Speaking to Frontline, Indra Dev, Professor Emeritus in the Sociology Department of Raipur University, said that these parties had scant respect for their own stated positions on a variety of social, political and policy issues. Their approach smacks of an audacity that ultimately nobody would question them and hence they do not have to be accountable to the public or to themselves. That is why you see these tall promises from even those parties that had first expressed themselves against populist policies.

Dr. Sushil Trivedi, former State Election Commissioner, said: The battle to distribute free rice will ultimately bring down the productivity of Chhattisgarh.

At Kurubhatta village in Mahasamund, the Lok Sabha constituency of Congress leader and former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, farmer Krishna Kumar Sahu summed up the response from the peasant community, which ultimately has to produce the rice that these parties are promising to distribute at reduced prices.

It is all right to announce distribution of rice at reduced prices, but where would that leave us? All these politicians talk about the interests of farmers, but where would this competitive price reduction lead the farmers to? he asked. He pointed out that the real concerns of farmers, such as growing agricultural expenditure, were not addressed by any of the mainstream parties (see box).

According to Krishna Kumar Sahu and many other farmers in the districts of Mahasamund, Raipur and Durg, the aspiration for a political alternative beyond the BJP and the Congress is indeed strong in the community, but no such political force seems to be emerging. Of course, we know that parties like the CPI, the CPI(M) and the BSP have a commitment to take up the issues and problems of the poor and marginalised communities, but in Chhattisgarh they are not a major presence and have not come around to fighting for our cause, he told Frontline.

Electioneering by the major parties, thus, does not seem to reflect the real issues affecting the people. Elections in Chhattisgarh seem to hinge on organisational factors rather than political or policy matters.

Numbers become important in this background. In the 2003 Assembly elections, the BJP won 50 seats with 39.26 per cent of the votes, while the Congress won 37 seats with 36.71 per cent of the votes. The NCP won one seat but captured 7.02 per cent of the votes. The NCP and the Congress fought that election separately, but this time they are together, and, therefore, in terms of electoral arithmetic they seem to have an advantage over the BJP. But then in politics two and two need not always add up to four.

In terms of organisational preparedness, there is little doubt that the BJP had the head start with its rice-and-salt campaign The BJPs election machinery is well structured with central coordinator Ravi Shankar Prasad camping in Raipur. Various units and Sangh Parivar affiliates have clearly defined roles, and internal assessments have expressed satisfaction with the way those roles are being performed.

The BJPs assessment at the beginning of the campaign was that the anti-incumbency feeling in the State was not directed against Chief Minister Raman Singh but against some of his Ministers and MLAs. On the basis of this premise, the party ticket was denied to 18 sitting MLAs. The party leadership is sure that this repeat of the Narendra Modi formula will help the party. But the move has brought BJP candidates up against rebel candidates in as many as nine seats. The rebels include Virendra Pandey, an erstwhile Jan Sangh leader and a founder-member of the BJP, who is challenging Industry Minister Rajesh Munat at Raipur City West.

According to Jogi, the fact that the BJP chose to take out 18 sitting MLAs from the fray reflects the partys contradictions. The party is so riddled with corruption that it dare not field its former MLAs. Already people are making a comparison between this clutch of MLAs and those who were in important positions during the Congress government. This comparison is clearly in our favour, he told Frontline.

However, Congress workers at various levels admit that the partys organisational machinery is no match for the BJPs and that the campaign is more or less dependent on Jogi. But Jogis close associates point out that the Congress has a strong base in some 20 constituencies, including Ambikapur, Abhanpur, Baikunthpur, Bhatapara and Kota, which have a long tradition of returning Congress candidates.

In contrast, the BJP does not have that many sure seats. A large number of Chhattisgarh voters are by tradition supporters of the Congress. In 2003, they got confused because of factionalism. So, what we are looking at is a minor course correction, and that is happening, said Arvind Netam, senior leader of the Congress who hails from a tribal community.

Congress workers are happy with the alliance with the NCP and pleased that internal squabbles between the factions led by Jogi, Vidya Charan Shukla and Motilal Vohra are now under control. Still, the central leadership dare not announce Jogi as the chief ministerial candidate for fear of annoying Shukla and Vohra. The Congress-NCP combine faces rebel candidates in 12 seats, but the leadership does not see that as a major threat.

However, the BSP, which has put up candidates in all the 90 seats, as well as the CPI and the CPI(M), which are contesting 12 and seven seats respectively, pose some problems for the Congress. The BSP won one seat and 6.94 per cent of the votes in 2003 and is likely to increase its vote and seat share. The Left parties hope to do the same and have been trying to develop some mass resistance movements in Bastar, Bijou and Durg.

The CPI (Maoist) has a significant following in around 20 Assembly constituencies spread across the regions of Dantewada and Bastar. The partys policy is to boycott the polls, but in past elections it selectively supported candidates of the Congress and the BJP. This time, indications are that the Maoists will back non-Congress and non-BJP parties, such as the CPI.

If voters in Chhattisgarh do indeed vote for these parties in large numbers, the State might well end up with a hung verdict, creating room for a greater say for the smaller parties.

Purnima S. Tripathi in Bhopal and Guna

THE traditional bipolar Congress-versus-BJP character of Madhya Pradesh politics is changing to a multipolar one in the November 27 elections. Mayawatis BSP and Uma Bharatis Bharatiya Jan Shakti (BJS) party are also in the fray, and the moot question is which of the two parties, the Congress or the BJP, they will affect more.

The BJP, which came to power in November 2003 with a three-fourths majority after 10 years of Congress rule, has done little to invite popular anger. In fact, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has a clean image though some of his Ministers are accused of corruption. Some of his schemes, such as the Ladli Laxmi Yojana for the girl child, have earned popular support.

SHIVRAJ SINGH CHOUHAN, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister.-V.V. KRISHNAN

But all is not apparently well with the government, which came to power promising a bhay, bhookh, bhrashtachar mukt samaj (a society free of fear, hunger and corruption). In the past five years, nothing much was done for poverty alleviation. Starvation deaths and malnutrition among children were routinely reported. No major employment creation programmes were launched. Fear among the minorities reigned supreme as attacks on Christians and Muslims increased.

There has been no major qualitative difference between the previous Congress regime and the present one. This has disillusioned the common voter, said a senior political observer. People looking for alternatives could thus find one in the BSP or the BJS or even the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), which has a strong base among the tribal people in the Mahakoshal region.

The new front-runner is the BSP, which is contesting all the 230 seats in the State for the first time. It has attracted people from all castes and backgrounds, including professionals. The party has also given eight seats to Muslim candidates, the highest number to Muslims by any party in the State.

The BSPs slogan of sarvjan hitaay, sarvjan sukhay (in the well-being of all is the welfare of all) has been reflected in the distribution of the ticket. More than three dozen Brahmins, two dozen Thakurs and 18 members of the minority community, including Muslims, Christians, Jains and Buddhists, figure in its list. Mayawati is capable of springing a surprise, said a political observer in Bhopal. Her partys campaign started well in advance without any hype, and it is well organised and disciplined. Not surprising, given the fact that running the BSP show in Madhya Pradesh are over 9,000 engineers and 900 doctors, with the help of a few retired bureaucrats and police officers.

S.C. Tripathi, former Director-General of the State police, is one of them. Tripathi is known to have been close to former Chief Minister Digvijay Singh and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in whose security team he worked. He joined the BSP recently. This is the only party that has the guts to speak of reservation for the poor among the upper castes. It believes in the welfare of all even though Dalits remain its core supporters, he said. He added that the BSPs policies were neither pro-Hindu nor pro-Muslim, unlike that of the BJP or the Congress. Architect Sanjiv Saxena, once a BJP sympathiser, is contesting from Bhopal South on the BSP ticket. He said professionals had associated themselves with the BSP this time to bring about a qualitative change in the pattern of governance. He said a survey done by him showed that over 70 per cent of the voters saw no difference between the Congress and the BJP.

Bhupendra Saxena, his campaign manager, said: People, especially the younger lot, are looking for a change now. We have to take the elephant [the BSP symbol] around and make people aware of its presence and the outcome will be startling.

According to Ibrahim Quereshi, former Chairman of the State Minorities Commission and president of All India Muslim Backward Classes Federation, there will be a hung Assembly this time in which the BSP and other parties, such as the GGP and the BJS, will have a decisive role to play. We have seen both the Congress and the BJP. In the past five years, 55 Muslims were killed in the State, many incidents of communal violence were reported in which the government took no action, and incidents of arson and looting against Muslims have increased. Secular parties such as the Congress, too, which has its government at the Centre, failed to protect us, he said.

Leaders of the BSP say the party will win 50-70 seats. This time there will be no government without our participation, said Rajaram, who is in charge of the party in Bhopal. He said if this was not the case, then long-time loyalists of both the BJP and the Congress would not have flocked to the BSP for the ticket.

Deserters from the Congress include Balendu Shukla, Shankar Pratap Singh Bundela (popularly known as Munna Raja), Devendra Singh Raghuvanshi and Hafizur Rehman. Shukla, a one-time confidant of the late Madhavrao Scindia of the Congress, is contesting from Gwalior on the BSP ticket while Munna Raja refused the Congress ticket from Chhattarpur to contest on the BSP ticket from Rajnagar. Raghuvanshi is contesting for the Bhamori seat in Guna district and Hafizur Rehman for the Bhopal Central seat.

HAFIZUR REHMAN, BSP candidate for Bhopal Central, proceeding to file his nomination papers, on November 7.-A.M. FARUQUI

According to Raghuvanshi, not just Bhamori, but the adjoining four or five seats could go to the BSP because of a trickle down effect. He said the advantage was that a BSP candidate began with a base of nearly 10,000 votes (the core Dalit vote) when other party candidates began from zero. But keeping in view its past performance, the BSPs confidence at the moment could be a bit presumptuous.

In 2003, the party won only two of the 158 seats it contested and had a vote share of 7.26 per cent. It claims that this was because the party was in a shambles in Madhya Pradesh then and that the president of the State unit, Phool Singh Baraiya, had revolted at the last minute, causing a split. At around the same time, the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh had fallen following the BJPs withdrawal of support.

But this time we have our own government in Uttar Pradesh, the organisation here is strong, and our campaign started much ahead of everyone elses. Besides, we are getting support from all castes and communities, said Rajaram. It would not be surprising if the Uttar Pradesh experiment, in which the BSP romped home, is repeated in Madhya Pradesh, he said.

Uma Bharati also is capable of springing a few surprises this time. Knowing the BJPs strategy (she was its star campaigner last time), she knows exactly what to do. Not only in Bundelkhand, where she has a strong support base, but all over the State Uma Bharati could damage the BJP. All she needs is 5,000-6,000 votes and the BJPs party will be spoiled, said a senior political analyst.

The Congress, which until a few months ago was talking of coming back to power, is already looking subdued, mainly because of widespread desertions following ticket distribution. Over 50 Congress rebels are in the fray. Congress leaders who did not want to be named said bungling in the ticket distribution could turn out to be the partys undoing. Union Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh apparently has pointed this out to Sonia Gandhi in a letter. Congress functionaries, however, deny this.

Resentment at the time of ticket distribution is a routine thing in big parties and our president Suresh Pachauri will talk to the rebels and things will be sorted out, said Rajiv Singh, general secretary of the State Congress, who claimed that the Congress would form the government. That looks quite unrealistic because the party won just 39 of the 230 seats in 2003 with a vote share of 31.6 per cent. This was despite the hushed talks of there being an informal understanding between the Congress and the BSP. Nothing much has changed in the intervening period to alter this position dramatically.

The BJP, which swept the previous elections winning 172 seats and 42.5 per cent votes, is confident that its own achievements and the Congress-led Central governments failure to check the price rise and terrorism will bring it back to power. But Uma Bharati, who herself is contesting from Tikamgarh and is reported to be drawing substantial support from a section of Other Backward Classes (OBC) voters, and Mayawati could play the spoilers.

Besides, Mayawatis formula of Brahmin-Dalit unity, which worked wonders in Uttar Pradesh, is also on trial here, and if the Uttar Pradesh result is any indication, it could seriously damage the BJPs prospects. But BJP leaders are in no mood to admit this. Our supporters are not driven by caste or religion, but ideology and they will stay with us, said Govind Malu, media-in-charge of the party in Bhopal. We have given a clean government; we promise development, of which we have given ample proof; our Chief Minister has a good image as was evident by the massive response to his ashirvad yatras; we have rid the State of naxalite and dacoit problem; and we created employment for one lakh people.

Besides, he said the party had effectively countered any anti-incumbency factor. It has denied the ticket to 61 of its sitting legislators.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta in New Delhi

SCUFFLES, protests, defections, boycotts, lobbying and cajoling are all part of the run-up to the elections to the Delhi Assembly, scheduled for November 29. These elections, along with Assembly elections in four other States, are being watched avidly because their results, it is believed, will indicate the trend in the general elections in 2009.

The leaderships of the two main parties, the Congress and the BJP, however, have their hands full trying to pacify disgruntled members who have been denied the party ticket or feel sidelined in other ways. A BJP leader said that there were 4,000 applications for the party ticket for the 70 Assembly constituencies. The Congress may have had an easier time choosing its candidates since it received only 700 applications, but it had a fair share of its own controversies.

The final lists of both parties inevitably left out many ticket-seekers, who have been registering their protest by bringing in large crowds almost every day outside the State offices of their respective parties, and sometimes even outside the national offices.

AMRISH GAUTAM, THE Congress candidate for the Kondli seat in Delhi, on his way to file his nomination on November 11.-SANDEEP SAXENA

It was this difficulty that reportedly made both the Congress and the BJP announce their lists unusually late. The BJP, which has conceded four seats to its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), did better than the Congress. Though both parties announced their candidates in two phases, the BJP announced its list earlier than the Congress both times, giving the impression that it was more sure of itself. Its chief ministerial candidate is Vijay Kumar Malhotra, the partys sole Member of Parliament from Delhi. Malhotra defeated Manmohan Singh in the 1999 general elections from the South Delhi constituency.

The Congress announced the names of its candidates for 22 seats on November 10, the day before the last date for filing nominations. Party sources said that the election-in-charge, Oscar Fernandes, was closely watching the BJPs nominations before finalising the partys candidates. The Congress list retained 50 sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly, but the preferences of some old-timers were reportedly ignored in favour of candidates who the leaders felt had a better chance of winning.

This seems to have happened in the BJP, too. Old-timers such as Vijay Goel and O.P. Kohli, members of the partys selection committee, reportedly walked out of a meeting. Afterwards, Goel wrote to the partys central leadership complaining that he was being sidelined.

Party nominations became fraught with controversies this time largely because of the delimitation exercise, after which many old constituencies disappeared while new ones were carved out. As a consequence, the carefully nurtured caste and community equations in the old constituencies were disrupted. There are more urban constituencies now, while the number of constituencies reserved for the Scheduled Castes is down to 11 from 13. The redrawing of the constituencies also led to bitter rivalries between sitting MLAs and delayed the party lists.

The large number of applications for the party ticket received by the BJP shows that the party hopes to do well, banking on the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress, which has been in power for 10 years. The partys election-in-charge, Arun Jaitley, said: We, being in the opposition, will benefit from the anti-incumbency wave. The voters have been affected at three levels. Price rise and mismanagement of the economy at the first level, security issues and terrorism at the second, and at the third, local, level by issues such as the hike in power prices, the sealing drive, water shortage, bad roads and poor education. The BJP is planning to play up the sealing and demolition drive in 2006, in which hundreds of properties were sealed and many people were displaced.

Questions have been raised about the timing of the regularisation of about 1,500 unauthorised colonies in Delhi a few months before the Assembly elections. The president of the BJPs Delhi unit, Harshvardhan, said: According to the Delhi Human Development Report 2006, unplanned jhuggis are there everywhere in Delhi, and 40 lakh people live in unauthorised colonies without any basic amenities. Regularisation of unauthorised colonies just before the elections is purely an election stunt. The government had 10 years to authorise them. The Sheila Dikshit government has failed to give flats to poor slum-dwellers, as had been promised in its manifestos in the last two elections.

Ajay Maken, Union Minister of State for Urban Development, however, told Frontline that the announcement came as the logical culmination of a process that began in February 2007 with the announcement of New Master Plan 2021, which contained the basic provisions for authorisation (Frontline, August 15, 2008). He said that the process began two and a half years ago and therefore could not be construed as a knee-jerk reaction to the November elections.

Sheila Dikshit has expressed confidence that her government will win the popular mandate. In a recent interview to a newspaper, she said, We would like to think there is pro-incumbency. People feel that this is a government that has performed for the past 10 years. We have taken some bold steps such as power privatisation. We now have over 130,000 vehicles running on compressed natural gas (CNG). We have increased green cover in the city to 20 per cent from 2 per cent 10 years ago. We implemented the Delhi Metro plan, which lay in files for 20-30 years. We also gave legal acceptance to unauthorised colonies. It is there for everybody to see.

She further said that the government was building 14,000 homes for slum-dwellers under the Rajiv Ratan Awas Yojana with financial help from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and that the dream was to build four lakh homes. The sealing was something that was done under court orders. Neither the Municipal Corporation of Delhi nor the Delhi government had anything to do with it, she added, referring to the 2006 drive against unauthorised properties.

Opinion polls conducted by some news channels say the Congress has an edge. Some polls, despite showing a decline in the popularity of the Congress, have predicted its victory.

One factor that both parties try to downplay is the growing presence of the BSP. Banking on its social engineering formula that proved a success in Uttar Pradesh and boosted its vote share by 9.89 per cent in the April 2007 municipal elections in Delhi, the BSP has constituted committees Brahmin, Dalit and Vaishya panels to target different sections of voters in the capital. Its election-in-charge, G.C. Dinkar, said his party was contesting all 70 seats and that party supremo Mayawati would campaign. The BSP won 17 seats in the municipal elections, denting Congress bastions. In many of the 272 wards of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, BSP candidates lost only by narrow margins.

Both the Congress and the BJP seem to be organising defections from the BSP. More than 20 office-bearers of the BSP, led by former Delhi unit president Jage Ram Bhati, declared their support to the Congress in September. The BSP councillor from Harkesh Nagar, Shri Giriraj, and five prominent leaders of various parties joined the BJP after resigning from their respective parties recently. However, many Congress and BJP members lined up with the BSP after they were denied the party ticket.

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