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The spoiler in Gujarat

Print edition : Jan 17, 2003 T+T-

WHEN the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) contested around 80 seats in the Gujarat polls, its leader Sharad Pawar knew his men had little chance of keeping their security deposits in most of these, let alone of winning them. The NCP's candidate in Morvi got all of 1.37 per cent of the vote. And the party did not expect better. Nor was the NCP building a base anywhere in these places. Then why put up candidates at all?

Simple. To sink the Congress(I) party in the marginal and hard-fought seats. It worked in as many as 15 of those, as the election commission's website shows. True, the NCP got only 1.37 per cent in Morvi. But the Bharatiya Janata Party edged past the Congress(I) by just 1.33 per cent in the same seat. So the NCP's miniscule vote handed Morvi to the BJP. Pawar's objective was thus achieved here and in 14 other seats. His capacity to bully the Congress(I) when the issue of seat adjustments for the Maharashtra polls comes along has been strengthened.

Interestingly, there was just one seat in those 15 where the NCP got more votes than the Congress(I): Gondal, where it got 27.19 per cent its highest tally in those 15. Mostly, it got much less. On average, across those 14 seats, it got just over 7 per cent of the vote. In Dhanera constituency, the NCP took less than 3.5 per cent of the vote. That ensured a BJP win over the Congress(I) by a margin of 2.35 per cent. In Jodiya, the NCP bagged just 2.49 per cent and Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (S.P.) a mere 0.48 per cent. But these vote shares were enough to see the BJP through with a margin of 2.58 per cent over the Congress(I).

In Jodiya and Kutiyana, the party blew the chances of the Congress(I) in tandem with the S.P. The S.P. also punctured the Congress(I) on its own in other seats, like Mansa, where it got 2.6 per cent. The BJP beat the Congress(I) there by 2.26 per cent. All in all, the BJP would have still clearly won the elections. However, the Congress(I)'s tally could have improved by 20 seats or more, but for the NCP-S.P. torpedo.

There were also seats where the votes of the NCP candidate do not equal the margin of the Congress(I) defeat but where the party did damage the latter's chances of putting up a fight. One of these, oddly enough, was Godhra. Finally, there were a few constituencies where the NCP almost brought disaster to the Congress(I) candidates but fell short of doing so by a handful of votes, as in Bhanvad.

The spokesmen of the NCP in Mumbai have made clear their reading of the poll. For them, it implies that the Congress(I) should have had a pre-poll tie-up with the NCP and had better do so in Maharashtra. In Gujarat, though, even if those 15 seats had been left to it by the Congress(I), the NCP stood a chance of winning just one. Yet, apart from blowing a hole in the Congress(I) tally in that State, these results will also come in handy as a means of blackmail for the NCP at the time of the Maharashtra polls in 2004. It could demand and get seats where it really has a very low percentage of votes. It could also lose those seats to the BJP-Shiv Sena combine as and this is likely in Maharashtra sections of the Congress(I) revolt against imposed NCP candidates.

There is another curious sidelight to the Gujarat results, though. The two seats exposed to the highest decibel communal campaign Godhra and Somnath did not vote quite as might have been expected. In Godhra, as compared to the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won, but gained less than 0.5 per cent. Not much of a dividend given the spectacular centrality of the Godhra tragedy to the party's poll campaign. The Congress(I), however, fell by 3.8 per cent - thanks in some measure, once again, to the NCP which got 2.5 per cent.

In Somnath, the Congress(I) fell by 10 per cent but the BJP lost 13 per cent (compared to the 1999 Lok Sabha polls). So the Congress(I) ended up retaining its seat. Somnath has, over years, gained iconic status in the BJP's communal propaganda. Since the communal polarisation was such a major factor in these polls, it is surely worth exploring why these two constituencies did not vote quite the way they might have.