- Strong pro-Vajpayee undercurrent means advantage BJP..
- Congress campaign yet to take off. But party will win a few seats thanks to self-goals by the BJP.
- Poor ticket distribution and infighting in the BJP could impact it in about five seats.
- Gondwana Gantantra Party could play spoilsport for both the BJP and the Congress in a few seats.
In the heart of India, the Congress is clearly not in battle mode for Lok Sabha 2004. Party morale is at an all-time low, local leaders have either absented themselves or are engaged in fighting each other. The high command in Delhi appears to have virtually thrown in the towel. Fortunately for the Congress, the BJP appears determined to score a few self-goals, thus allowing the former to at least save face.
At the Congress HQ in Bhopal’s Jawahar Bhawan, there’s little sign of the usual frenetic election activity. And party office-bearers and workers are only too willing to share their angst against the high command—for treating MP as a lost cause—and their local leaders, for having run away from the electoral battle. Even ex-CM Digvijay Singh is focusing on Orissa, which he is in charge of, rather than on home turf.
One of the last men standing is Kamal Nath, whose reputed invulnerability in Chhindwara is now under siege from a young BJP firebrand. Prahlad Singh Patel, Union MoS for coal and literally and figuratively the BJP's tallest leader in Mahakaushal, has seriously rattled Nath. Patel’s focus on development and his strongman image are both working for the BJP. The contrasting campaign styles makes for a colourful battle. Patel thunders around the countryside on a motorcycle while Nath wings it overhead in his helicopter. But the balance of power is with neither—it lies with a marginal player, the Gondwana Gantantra Party or the GGP.
The GGP is the invisible enemy. Not a poster, flag or party worker is in evidence. But at every adivasi village, you are told it has a solid votebank. Nath’s future and that of the Congress in at least five other seats depends on the GGP’s strength. It took away 1.3 lakh votes in Chhindwara alone in the assembly polls. If it does better this time, Nath may lose. And the GGP is determined to defeat him. Says its Amanwara mla M.S. Batti: "We’ll send this demon back to Calcutta, from where he came. First, we will destroy the Congress and then the BJP." Nath has tried every trick in the book to split the GGP, alleges Batti while the former insists "the GGP is an accessory of the BJP". But in Mandla, where GGP leader Hari Singh Markam has thrown his hat into the ring, both the Congress and the BJP feel threatened.
Further east, an interesting battle is brewing in Rajgarh, where Digvijay’s brother Laxman Singh has managed to get the BJP ticket in the teeth of strong opposition from virtually the entire state unit. Furious party workers are not willing to aid the official nominee. In fact, the BJP’s ticket distribution hasn’t gone entirely smoothly, creating a certain degree of dissent. The party is not comfortably placed in Gwalior, Khargone and Rewa, where the Bahujan Samaj Party has a strong presence. Long-standing MPs, like social welfare minister Satnarayan Jatia and Sumitra Mahajan, are facing anti-incumbency pressures in Ujjain and Indore respectively. But the party hopes the positive sentiment generated by the Ardhakumbh Mela at Ujjain, a grand affair coordinated by Indore’s mayor and state pwd minister Kailash Vijayvarghia, will subsume all other factors in these two seats.
A strong but silent pro-Atal undercurrent should also work to the BJP's advantage. But most of all, it is the fact that the Congress has vacated the field without a contest. All along, the Congress leadership in Delhi has put a brave face on the loss in the 2003 assembly polls by saying it would make up in Lok Sabha 2004. As Congress leaders like Ambika Soni themselves admit, that doesn’t seem likely—a fact borne out by the party’s internal surveys too.