Weighed down by in-fighting

Print edition : November 21, 1998

Both the principal contestants in Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), are handicapped by challenges from rebel candidates in a number of constituencies.

ON the night of November 10, the campaign for the elections to the Delhi Assembly took a violent turn with the killing of Ved Singh alias Laloo Pehalwan, the Samata Party candidate from the Nangloi Jat constituency. The killing, along with issues such as the rise in the prices of essential commodities, the worsening law and order situation, and the collapse of civic amenities in the national capital, has put the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on the defensive. Ved Singh was until November 5 a prominent local leader of the BJP. He quit the BJP when the party denied him the ticket to contest the elections. The Samata Party, an ally of the BJP in the coalition ruling at the Centre, readily adopted him as its candidate. The Samata Party was upset by the BJP's reluctance to grant it a few seats in the Delhi elections.

Ved Singh's relatives, including his father Bhim Singh Choudhary, have alleged that the brothers of a prominent BJP leader were behind the murder. Bhim Singh told reporters:"They knew that my son's candidature would upset the winning chances of the BJP's candidate Devender Singh. Some of them came to our house a couple of times and threateningly asked Ved Singh to withdraw from the contest. But he did not budge." During the last three years, Ved Singh's claim to fame within the BJP was his association with former Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma. However, Ved Singh fell out with Verma. Ved Singh was the prime witness in a murder case in which two nephews of Verma were involved.

The killing of Ved Singh was followed by a damage control exercise by the BJP leadership. At a press conference, Verma demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the murder. Former Chief Minister Madan Lal Khurana and the party's Delhi election campaign manager Vijaya Kumar Malhotra endorsed this demand.

All this, however, does not seem to have mitigated the BJP's problems. Samata Party general secretary Jaya Jaitley accused a "section of the BJP" of "committing a political murder". She said: "The BJP has to decide whether democracy should survive in the country and whether its allies should have the right to carry on their political activity in a democratic fashion and fight elections wherever they want."

The murder and the events that followed have aggravated the rivalry in the BJP among groups led by Khurana, Verma and Sushma Swaraj, the newly installed Chief Minister. Khurana took potshots at both Sushma Swaraj and Verma by condemning the murder as a "shameful act" caused by the failure of the law and order machinery and "the promotion of criminal elements in Delhi politics over the last few years." While the reference to the law and order machinery was meant to highlight the incumbent Chief Minister's failure, the complaint relating to promotion of criminal elements was targeted at Verma, the previous Chief Minister. Verma retaliated by saying that in the matter of the murder he would not rule out the possibility of a conspiracy by some sections of the BJP aimed at maligning him.

Congress(I) leaders Sheila Dixit and Jag Pravesh Chandra releasing the party manifesto for Delhi.-V. SUDERSHAN

Meanwhile, the supporters of Sushma Swaraj have launched a whispering campaign against Verma. They say that he bequeathed to the present Chief Minister a host of problems which hinder an effective election campaign. These problems include the collapse of the law and order machinery and civic amenities, which, they say, caused widespread resentment among the people.

A survey conducted recently by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) for The Hindustan Times gives credence to these complaints. According to the survey, 47.8 per cent of the respondents feel that the law and order situation has deteriorated during the five years of BJP rule. Approximately 50 per cent are not happy about the supply of drinking water, and 57.7 per cent feel the same way about the supply of electricity. About 35 per cent of the respondents say that transport facilities have worsened in the last five years. Even among BJP supporters, 32 per cent of those who voted for the party in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections are dissatisfied with the Government's performance. Above all this, a whopping 63.5 per cent of the respondents consider price rise the biggest problem.

Naturally, sections of the BJP leadership admit that the party faces an uphill electoral task. The BJP registered leads in as many as 52 of the 70 Assembly segments in Delhi in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. This represented a gain of support in three more constituency segments than it had won in the 1993 Assembly polls. The vote share of the BJP had also gone up in 1998 to 50.7 per cent from 42.82 per cent in 1993. The Congress(I) led in 16 Assembly segments and won 42.6 per cent of the votes in the Lok Sabha elections, against 14 seats and 34.48 per cent votes in the 1993 Assembly polls. But, as sections of the BJP leadership admit, all these figures do not mean much now as the situation has changed over the last eight months, when the BJP has been in power both at the Centre and in Delhi.

The Congress(I), the main opposition party, should have had a cakewalk in a such situation. But, the campaign atmosphere does not indicate anything like this. Congress(I) activists complain that the party leadership has messed up a favourable situation through organisational mismanagement and unimaginative selection of candidates. The much-touted code for selection of candidates was violated with impunity, and persons who lost elections repeatedly have been nominated. The party had laid down that those who had lost the previous election by a margin of over 3,000 votes would not be considered for renomination. However, persons such as All India Congress Committee (AICC) secretary Dr. S.C. Vats, socialite Kiran Choudhary and television personality Anjali Rai were nominated though they lost the 1993 elections with margins of 21,000, 9,000 and 11,000 votes respectively. Ironically, Vats and Anjali Rai have been given relatively safe constituencies. On the other hand, Delhi Pradesh Congress(I) Committee secretary Brahm Yadav who lost in the Rajinder Nagar seat by a margin of 1,100 votes was denied the ticket. Congress(I) activists even allege that money power played a role in the selection of candidates.

The selection of candidates has caused such resentment that there are Congress(I) rebels contesting in as many as 12 seats. Many of them are influential enough to spoil the official candidate's chances. Party President Sonia Gandhi herself had to intervene to persuade a powerful rebel candidate from contesting in DPCC President Sheila Dixit's Gole Market constituency. Rebels allege that a group consisting of Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) members Arjun Singh, Oscar Fernandes and Ahamed Patel and DPCC leaders Sheila Dixit and Sajjan Kumar as well as Vincent George, Sonia Gandhi's secretary played a major role in the selection process. The dissatisfaction among the party's ranks has generated the fear that the Congress(I) may end up losing a winnable election.

Another factor that worries the Congress(I) is the re-emergence of the issue of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. That S.S. Ahluwalia, a Congress(I) leader and a Sikh, raised the issue has embarrassed party leaders. According to Ahluwalia, the apology tendered by Sonia Gandhi during the Lok Sabha elections and later for the riots lost its meaning as leaders such as Sajjan Kumar and H.K.L. Bhagat, who, he said, had instigated and led the riots, continued to hold influential positions in the party. The general assessment of the Congress(I) leadership is that Ahluwalia is paving the way for his defection to the BJP, but it has refrained from initiating action against him for fear of a backlash from the Sikh community. Instead, the party leadership, especially Sonia Gandhi, has been making overtures to Sikhs by convening special meetings at which she repeats her apology to the community.

The funeral procession of Ved Singh, the Samata Party candidate in the Nangloi Jat constituency, who was murdered on November 10.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The failure of the Congress(I) to have an electoral understanding with secular parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM) might work against its interest, at least in a few constituencies. The Congress(I) refused to concede their demands with regard to seats. In 1993, the split in the secular vote, caused by the presence of the Janata Dal in the fray, had led to the defeat of the Congress(I) in 12 constituencies. This time around the BSP and the RLM may play much the same role that the Janata Dal played in 1993.

However, Congress(I) leaders believe that their party will win the secular vote as it has emerged as the most potent force that can take on the BJP. They say that this trend was evident in the Lok Sabha polls, in which the Janata Dal's vote-share dropped to 2.48 per cent from 12.53 per cent in 1993. They point out that the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, a component of the RLM, polled only 2.34 per cent and 0.30 per cent of the votes respectively. Besides, they reckon that the presence in the arena of BJP's allies such as the Samata Party, the Trinamul Congress and the Lok Shakti will work to Congress(I)'s advantage.

However, all these calculations will have some meaning only if the Congress(I) is able to set right its organisational problems well before polling day. At the time of writing, the situation is one in which the BJP is on the defensive and the Congress(I) is yet to gear up to strike.

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