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A Win In The Palm

Anti-incumbency is a cliche. But it could spell redemption for the Congress in the Kerala and Assam assembly polls.

A Win In The Palm
The oldest political party of our country—the Congress—is engrossed in doing what, of late, it has done best: riding atop the anti-incumbency hope. Battered and literally reduced to playing the second fiddle, from being the 'unquestionable' formation of governance, the party's only nutrient has been its ability to hope and make merry at the slightest hint of negative mandate.

This summer, it is looking forward to what its leaders call two "certain" victories in the crucial 2001 assembly elections, in which a total of five states are going to the hustings. Congress leaders in the eastern state of Assam and the southern province of Kerala claim people in their respective states have had enough of the ruling Asom Gana Parishad (agp) and the ldf and the time for change has come.

Says Congress MP from Assam Tarun Gogoi: "The agp may shout from rooftops about having controlled militants but the free run it has given to surrendered insurgents and the complete lack of development in the rural areas will not be forgiven by the people. They want change and the Congress will provide that change." In Thiruvananthapuram, senior Congress leader A.K. Antony says the cpi(m) tactic of terrorising its opponents and the public alike will boomerang this time and the Congress is the only credible answer. That, in his opinion, is only increasing the ldf's desperate tactics.

In a sense, both Assam and Kerala follow similar political patterns—the ruling party rarely returns to power and the two main parties are a motley assemblage of several powerful interests in their respective states. If past trends are anything to go by, Assam CM Prafulla Kumar Mahanta may have a lot to worry about. Since 1985, voters in the state have alternated between his agp and the Congress. This pattern, therefore, makes the Congress upbeat.

In Assam, the Congress has traditionally banked on the Muslim vote and the tea estate workers (some of them migrant Santhals from Bihar) to come to power. Admits Gogoi: "Whenever these two sections have voted together for us, we've gained. But this time, even the Ahoms are going to come out in large numbers, so our calculation is that we're as good as through."

Privately though, even Congress workers say the emergence of the bjp in Assam is the new anxiety factor, as far as they are concerned. The figures are revealing. In the 1996 parliamentary elections held simultaneously with the assembly polls, the bjp had secured about 16 per cent of the total votes polled. In the two subsequent elections to the Lok Sabha, the bjp's voteshare jumped to 25 and 33 per cent respectively. More significantly, bjp candidates led in innumerable assembly segments during these two elections and won two Lok Sabha seats. The Congress garnered the maximum number of votes, getting nine of the 14 LS seats. The agp drew a blank.

Chief minister Mahanta disagrees: "In the Lok Sabha polls, our candidates lost because of the Congress' terror in the rural areas. And the fact that people were voting in the context of the Kargil victory gave the bjp an edge." For the assembly elections, Mahanta says, the issues are different. Says he: "People will judge us positively on various counts, the biggest of them being we freed the people from the clutches of militants."

Mahanta certainly has a point. Insurgency has been reduced to only a nagging political problem over the past couple of years and economic development is the new buzzword.Home minister L.K. Advani himself patted the chief minister on his recent visit here and complimented the state's law and order machinery. Does it mean the bjp and the agp will tie up against the Congress? That, say experts, is easier said than done. In its official resolution passed recently, the agp has called the bjp 'communal' while bjp president Bangaru Laxman launched a scathing attack on the ruling party during his last visit to Assam.

Analysts, however, believe it may ultimately be a Congress versus agp-bjp skirmish, with Bodos and Karbis contributing to the tally. In a state where the Congress has come to power with as little as 28.98 per cent of the vote in '91, a small swing at the last moment may make a lot of difference.

IN Kerala too, the ruling ldf bears the cross of the electorate's accumulating disenchantment. Its performance on every front is being put under a sharp critical light—if voted out, the cpi(m)-led front will pass an empty exchequer to the incumbent. Other areas of ldf non-performance remain: the absence of any industrial activity, the downward spiral in coconut and rubber prices, poor resource mobilisation and cumulative debt burden.

Add to this is the festering violence in Kannur and more recently Nadupuram, and its failure to break the nexus between the liquor mafia and officialdom in the wake of hooch deaths, and a return of the Congress-led udf seems imminent. Even more worrisome for the cpi(m) on the eve of the elections is the total collapse of its carefully planned political stratagem aimed at the udf. The gains from the much-publicised Peoples' Plan Campaign, an experiment in development through devolution, proved elusive. The ldf suffered setbacks in all the showcase constituencies where the new model had been applauded in the poll to local bodies.

Next the cpi(m)'s design of undermining the udf's cohesion, by goading the Indian Union Muslim League (iuml) to break away, fell apart when the latter refused to bite the bait. The Marxists had enlisted the collaboration of Kunhalikutty, senior iuml leader and confidant of party supremo Panakkad Shihab Thangal, to either effect a split or fullscale defection to the ldf. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, sensing danger, paid a well-timed courtesy call on Thangal in Kozhikode and stymied the Left's divisive plan.

The cpi(m)'s strategy to wrest the minority vote suffered a further setback when it alienated Kerala Congress leader P.J. Joseph over the setting up of private engineering colleges in the state. Joseph threatened to leave the Front, but didn't act on his threat. Analysts, however, say relations between the ldf and the powerful Church broke over the issue. "The cpi(m) has degenerated from being an outfit that committed political crime to one that commits gang rape," says C.P. John of the Communist Marxist Party, a cpi(m) splinter, now with the udf.

But even in such an advantageous situation, the Congress could turn out to be its worst enemy. Its warring factions aren't committed to any lasting rapprochement. And though Antony is trying to focus public attention on issues like stagnation and the state's debt burden, the talking point for the public is the bloody feud between party veteran

K. Karunakaran and Antony. That, say analysts, is the burden the udf will have to carry if voted to office.These issues are unlikely to go away even if it rides to power.

Venu Menon in Thiruvananthapuram and Nitin A. Gokhale in Guwahati

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