THE North has been consistently slipping from the Congress' grasp. It fared badly in the last few elections, and there are no indications to the contrary this time. This leaves the Congress with little hope of improving on its '91 tally, when it sent 71 MPs to the Lok Sabha from 185 constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and the Union territory of Chandigarh. If the South has just begun to show its disillusionment, the North does not seem enthused by the stability plank.
Take Madhya Pradesh. The state has the largest number of scam-tainted ministers who are either not contesting or are in the fray as rebel candidates. Without the support structure of its senior leaders (the Shukla brothers are not contesting), the Congress is fighting for survival. Even Kamal Nath and Arvind Netam who are campaigning for their wives (both party candidates) are reluctant Congressmen.
Adding to its woes are Arjun Singh, whose Congress(T) is likely to wean away a major chunk of votes, and Madhavrao Scindia, who enjoys enough goodwill in his state to hamper his parent party's prospects. Already, 24 Congress MLAs are openly supporting Scindia's new party. If more follow suit, the Digvijay Singh Government will be in trouble. In 1991, the Congress bagged 27 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats while the BJP won 12. But this time, the BJP is slated to gain the most from the confusion and divide in the Congress.
The emerging scenario in Uttar Pradesh is no source of comfort for the Congress either. The BJP is all set to hold on to the 51 seats (out of 85) it won in 1991, if not per -form better. Breathing down its neck is the Samajwadi Party-Janata Dal alliance. And the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is the chief irritant for both. Once a Congress stronghold, the party doesn't even have much nuisance value this time: it sent only five MPs from Uttar Pradesh in its last outing and, at best, it can marginally better its tally. For, party leaders are finding it difficult to explain the masjid demolition to Muslim voters. Even the charismatic Salman Khursheed has been forced to go on the backfoot at street-corner meetings, with apologetic statements like: "Our government has committed many mistakes. I don't say everything we did was correct." The Congress apprehends the Muslim vote will be split by the BSP, a scenario which can only spell more trouble for the party.
What has bolstered BJP hopes is the no-holds-barred battle between the SP and the BSP. It's now becoming clear that the BJP wouldn't have been so well placed had it not been for the divide in the OBC and Dalit votebank. There is even talk that on poll-eve, the BJP might enter into some kind of understanding with the BSP in a few constituencies. However, BSP chief Kanshi Ram denies any truck with the BJP: "Those who are saying this are bastards." Strong words—but the buzz is that a deal is likely.
In most constituencies—barring Farru-khabad where the Congress is in the fight—it is a straight contest between the BJP and the SP-JD alliance with the BSP being the third element, a factor which could split the SP-JD vote. In 1991, the JD, which contested on its own, won 22 seats. It remains to be seen how the new JD-Mulayam alliance will fare.
Observers say polling patterns are likely to be different with local factors and caste equations dominating the results. This might prove BJP calculations in Pilibhit and Nainital wrong. But though the party's Ram Mandir card has lost its appeal, it has been helped by a weakened Congress and the failure of the JD-SP alliance to rope in the BSP to match its 1991 performance.
In Rajasthan, where campaigning is near invisible, the Congress and BJP are locked in a straight contest in the 25 Lok Sabha seats. But the prospect of a low turnout is likely to make winning a dif ficult task.
Besides the state's estimated 8 per cent Muslim vote, the Congress is still banking on the stability card. The BJP has also steered clear of emotive issues like Ayodhya and is instead focussing on what Rajasthan Home Minister Kailash Meghwal describes as the "development work" undertaken by its government. Meghwal claims that the BJP will win 16 of the 25 seats. In the last elections, the BJP and Congress fought neck-and-neck and bagged 13 and 12 seats respectively.
In 1991, various Akali parties had boycotted the polls in Punjab and the Congress had romped home with 12 of the 13 parliamentary seats. This time, the Akalis are back in the fray and the contests are keener. And after the main Akali Dal faction led by Parkash Singh Badal forged an alliance with the BSP, which has pockets of strong support, it dealt another blow to the Congress.
The Congress trumpcard is the end of the militancy phase, and peace—which the voter may not trust even the moderate Akalis to keep. But the Sikh (mainly Jat) farmers, the backbone of Akali support, are showing no signs of voting Congress. The Akalis have raised local concerns and are raking up the alleged human rights abuses under Congress rule. But Beant Singh's assassination and K.P.S. Gill's ouster have taken some wind out of their sails.
In border areas, once a hot-bed of militancy, Akalis still retain enough sympathy. And observers say simultaneous assembly and Lok Sabha polls favour the Opposition, thanks to the "carry-over effect" of the anti-establishment vote. The Congress is plagued by dissidence, which seems to have worsened after H.S. Brar took over as chief minister. Punjab Congress sources say Brar has to deal with the challenge posed by Youth Congress leader M.S. Bitta, and also grapple with a powerful dissident camp within the Punjab Congress itself led by PCC president Virender Kataria.
Brar, who was against a family member contesting from Faridkot against Badal's son, had to give in to PCC pressure to "lead the fight against the Akalis from the front" and urged his daughter into the fray. In what's likely to be a close finish, a defeat would mean tremendous loss of face for Brar—something the rebels are hoping for.
But in the final analysis, while it is almost certain that the Congress will not be able to match its previous performance, the party is likely to romp home, taking the credit for bringing peace to the state.
Elections have come at harvest time in Haryana and as former chief minister Hukum Singh puts it: "The mood of the electorate can be gauged only three days before the election since now everyone is out in the fields." Though campaigning is yet to hot up, simultaneous elections to the 10 Lok Sabha and 90 assembly seats have added an element of interest.
In 1991, it was a cakewalk for the Congress which won nine of the parliamentary and 51 assembly seats. The Bansi Lal-led Haryana Vikas Party (HVP) was a poor second, winning only one Lok Sabha and 12 assembly seats. But the political scene has changed with the HVP's tie-up with the BJP.
Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, under fire for the poor handling of the post-flood situation last year, has tried to strike a populist chord by promising prohibition if re-elected, but opponents say it's just a stunt. In the absence of any compelling issues, the contenders have been reduced to histrionics. It will be difficult for the Congress to repeat its 1991 performance.
The Congress is more optimistic in Himachal where it looks set to cash in on several populist measures implemented by Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. Last time, the Congress and the BJP shared the four Lok Sabha seats equally but the latter has failed to regain any ground following the dismissal of its government post Ayodhya.
The contest in Delhi has always been between the BJP and the Congress. Of the seven Lok Sabha seats, the BJP won five and the Congress two in the 1991 elections. Now, interest revolves around individual candidates. With very optimistic projections of its chances nationwide, the BJP has roped in former Jammu and Kashmir governor Jagmohan and its high-profile general secretary Sushma Swaraj.
Not to be left behind, the Congress, too, has glamour in the form of Rajesh Khanna and lawyer Kapil Sibal. So too has the beleaguered Tiwari Congress, which has put up cricketer Manoj Prabhakar. It remains to be seen whether the stars will succeed.