Still Ahead of the Others
IN Uttar Pradesh, the BJP faces an electoral scenario vastly different from the frenzied one of 1991. The party no longer has a powerful emotional plank like Ram Janambhoomi, what with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad having failed to whip up similar passions over the Kashi-Mathura issue.
The party has also been forced to sidestep delicately the issue of corruption following the chargesheet against Advani and other BJP leaders. While its poll strategy now comprises raising broader issues like the Kashmir problem, infiltration from Bangladesh and the activities of the Pakistani ISI, the party is clearly once again falling back on a thinly disguised Hindutva plank.
"In every house there is an ISI agent," says Professor Shyam Nandan Mishra, member secretary of the BJP's election management committee. But with the arrest of its MP from Gonda, Brij Bhushan Sharan, under TADA, it will be difficult for the BJP to tout even national security or criminalisation of politics as a poll plank with a plain face.
Even though the BJP dismisses the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP as 'regional parties', SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav still remains the main target of the BJP's campaign as the Congress is in complete disarray after N.D. Tiwari quit the party to head the rebel faction. The alleged increase in ISI activities during Mulayam's tenure as chief minister will form the focus of the BJP's offensive against the SP, say party leaders. In a bid to gain the backward vote, Kalyan Singh has been projected as the BJP's answer to Mulayam. Says Shyam Nandan Singh: "When it is a question of forming a government at the Centre, the people will choose between the Congress and the BJP. All regional parties will be pushed to the background."
The BJP's prospects could be influenced by the timing of the polls. It stands to benefit if the Lok Sabha and the state assembly elections are held simultaneously, as it would get considerable mileage out of local issues in the Lok Sabha seats as well. Organisationally, it is well prepared for the elections and plans to have "20 youth at every (polling) booth".
In 1991, the BJP rode to success in Uttar Pradesh on the Ram Janambhoomi issue, getting 51 out of 85 Lok Sabha seats, with 32.8 per cent of the total votes. But after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, the BJP lost ground, as was evident during the state assembly elections in 1993. From 214 seats in 1991, it was reduced to 177.
That the SP and the BSP are no longer allies is to the BJP's advantage. But Yadav's hands could be strengthened by an alliance with the Janata Dal. Explaining his interest in a tie-up with the JD, Yadav said: "In the '93 assembly election, the JD secured13 per cent of the overall vote, whereas the BSP got only 9.8 per cent. The SP got 20.2 per cent of the vote." Thus, if the SP and JD were to get together, they would prove even more powerful than the SP-BSP combine.
While Yadav says the alliance with the JD is more or less final, state Dal president Ram Asre Verma feels it is too early to be sure. He wants to draw the BSP into the alliance and says: "Together, the three parties are an unbeatable combination."
Laloo Remains the Obstacle
IF Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Yadav's appointment as president of the Janata Dal has annoyed any party, it is the BJP. For the appointment has reinforced Laloo's already strong position in the state. In October 1990, the JD leader, not content with arresting Advani, thereby forcing him to abandon the Rathyatra, had also in the months that followed engineered a defection in the 39-member BJP legislature party, with 11 members crossing over to the JD. This was when the fledgling Laloo government was in a minority.
Last year, the assembly election saw Laloo securing absolute majority, while the BJP emerged as the main Opposition party, winning 41 seats in the 324-member legislative assembly, and the Congress was relegated to third position—down from 72 to 27 seats—with continuing factional fighting.
The BJP calculates that it needs to more than double its present strength of five Lok Sabha seats out of the 54 seats from the state for a serious bid at forming the government at the Centre. In 1991, the Congress had won just one seat while Laloo's JD cornered 33 seats. The BJP had won five, JMM six and CPI and CPI(M) seven as elections were countermanded in two constituencies. In the first split that the JD suffered, Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav along with some other MPs who had won under Laloo's leadership crossed over to defend the Narasimha Rao Government in July 1993. Later, George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar formed the Samata Party which has now decided to align with the BJP in the coming election. And this is what has raised the hopes of the saffron brigade.
"A section of the non-Yadav backward castes will certainly vote for the alliance," says Saryu Roy, the Samata Party's state unit general secretary and spokesman. In fact, there is a possibility of the BJP sparing 14 seats for the Samata Party in order to defeat the Janata Dal. "The fodder scandal has come in handy," says Roy. The chief minister has ordered a judicial probe but there is a possibility that the scandal would affect—apart from the JD—the Congress as well as close relatives of two Union ministers, Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and Jagannath Mishra, who have been arrested following their alleged involvement.
While the Congress decline has been visible, the BJP has more or less remained steady in the state. It secured 13.5 per cent votes in last year's assembly election against 17 per cent in the 1991 Lok Sabha election. But the BJP's hopes this time lie in its reckoning that the backward Kurmis and Koeris, who had voted for the JD in the last Lok Sabha election, and the Brahmins, who voted for the Congress, will now switch sides in favour of the BJP—the Brahmins mainly due to the demolition at Ayodhya.
However, Laloo's poll management has so far surpassed such calculations. Even his rivals accept that he has solid support from the Muslims and the Yadavas who together constitute over 25 per cent of the state's population—and this forms the chief minister's strong support base.
One Up on Rivals
IN Maharashtra, the real electoral advantage for the Sena-BJP alliance lies in the Congress inability to get its act together. This has fuelled the combine's hopes of catapulting from nine seats in the 1991 Lok Sabha poll to 30 in the 1996 general election. "The confrontations continue. Day by day, Sharad Pawar is becoming friendless in his own party," says BJP General Secretary Pramod Mahajan.
A potential advantage for the BJP is the shaping up of a credible third force threatening to wean Dalit and minority votes away from the Congress. "In the last election, about 42 per cent votes got scattered because of a divided third force. This time it won't split," says Marzban Patrawala, who quit the Congress for the Samajwadi Party, which enjoys the support of the Janata Dal, the Peasants' & Workers' Party, the Left Front and the Republican Party of India.
In contrast to the Congress disunity, the BJP and Sena have stayed united despite differences. Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde says seat adjustments will be sorted out, but the potential flashpoint remains: the Sena has asked for 25 seats despite the understanding that it would play a lesser role in the Lok Sabha polls.
Munde cites improved law and order, rural electrification and free education till Class X as his government's achievements. Its more dubious 'achievements', however, include renaming Bombay, scrapping the Srikrishna Commission probing the '93 riots, scrapping the Minorities Commission and bringing back Enron. The Congress will focus on these issues. It also hopes to win back the sugar belt. But the continued alienation of the Muslims is bad news for the party as Maulana Kashmiri of the Ulema Council says the community will shun Congress and the saffron front alike. All in all, the BJP has reason to be confident—provided its allies behave.
Divided, but Still Ahead
IN a state where S.K. Jain distributed his largesse most generously among political parties, it is the BJP which seems to be feeling the heat more than the Congress. Why? "Because while the Congress stopped making corruption an issue long ago, the BJP was banking heavily on it," says former Congress MP Ghufran-e-Azam.
Party perceptions apart, the BJP's advantage in Madhya Pradesh remains. With Congress leaders V.C. Shukla and Madhav Rao Scindia chargesheeted in the hawala case and the breakaway Arjun Singh faction having a significant hold over a large chunk of Congress voters, state leaders say that the BJP is bound to improve on its 1991 performance of bagging 12 of the 40 parliamentary seats.
All this should have made former chief minister Sunderlal Patwa's position stronger, what with the benefit of the anti-establishment vote and his main rivals within the party, Kailash Joshi and Virendra Kumar Saklecha, neutralised. But his position remains far from happy. The divisions in the state BJP are clear, the most recent example being Uma Bharati's 'sangharsh' yatra in February where the state leadership was put under a microscope.
To iron out differences, the leadership has replaced Kushabhai Thakare with Sunder Singh Bhandari as the central observer. In February, as part of the new strategy, Patwa, along with ace rival Kailash Joshi and Lakhiram Agrawal, launched a statewide electoral offensive. They held moderately successful programmes in eight state commissionaries. Also, the state's election management committee will hold a meeting on March 15. Efforts are on to remove the tag of a pro-trader, pro-upper caste party and field tribals and OBCs as candidates, particularly from the Chhattisgarh belt.
Patwa himself remains calm in the face of all odds. "All this talk of rifts within the party is hype. There may be differences of opinion, but once a decision is taken, we all abide by it. The local party structure has to be made stronger. Leaders from Delhi and Bhopal are not enough to win the elections," he points out.
Party calculations also bank heavily on the law of averages. Their reckoning: both the Congress and the BJP have roughly 35 to 36 per cent of the voters on their side. "It is actually the 4 or 5 per cent floating voters who elect a government," analyses Prabhat Jha, a BJP office-bearer, adding that this floating population went the Congress way in both '91 and '93. "Now it is our turn," he says.
The Enemy Within
BATTERED by dissidence since it came to power a year ago, the BJP's moment of reckoning has arrived. The advantage of 20 seats in the '91 Lok Sabha and 121 seats in the assembly poll has been squandered through infighting between BJP state leaders Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela. The question now is whether oneupmanship will dig the BJP's electoral grave.
State BJP chief Kashiram Rana predicts a gain of three to four seats over 1991, but not many outside the party share his confidence. Observers say that while the recent incidents will not wipe the BJP out, the Congress may well gain some seats.
Vaghela and Patel declared an armed truce before last month's Rajya Sabha elections and rumours that the patch-up may entail the ouster of Chief Minister Suresh Mehta are rife. "There is a possibility of a major development in the next 10 to 15 days," says Deputy Forest Minister Vipul Chaudhry. Speculation is that Patel may return as chief minister with Vaghela as his deputy.
Even if the compromise works, the BJP will be hard put to retain its position. Advani, at the centrestage of the hawala crisis, may not contest from Gandhinagar. Vaghela, too, is not inclined to stand from Godhra again. The BJP's 'star' candidates—Deepika Chikhalia, Arvind Trivedi and Mahesh Kanoria—will find the going tough. Following Kapadvanj MP Gabhaji Thakore's suspension, the BJP is looking to put up new faces.
The BJP rode to power on a rainbow coalition of Brahmins, Patidars and Kshatriyas. While it commands fewer votes among the Dalits and tribals, it still managed to win the lion's share of reserved seats in the assembly poll. It has also been attempting to expand its support base among the OBCs.
Despite the BJP's troubles, it is better prepared for elections than the Congress. As an observer put it: "With enemies like the Congress, the BJP does not need friends." But it needs to keep its house in order as further bloodletting will benefit the Congress. "The longer this drama goes on, the easier it will be to prove the BJP can't digest power," observes state Congress chief Amarsinh Chaudhry.
A Downward Slide
NOTHING seems to be working in the BJP's favour in Karnataka. Its leadership has been accused of playing petty and partisan politics. Its vote share has declined in every election since 1991. Many of its star vote-catchers have deserted the party. There is disillusionment in the ranks and senior leaders have little cause for cheer in the forthcoming general elections.
Points out five-time MLA Dr Jeevaraj Alva: "Short of cheating I saw everything—deception, betrayal, petty mindedness, oneupmanship. Even if you join the Naxalites, you can blossom into a politician. Not in the BJP." Alva was considered a prize catch by the BJP but he is on his way out. So is Nanje Gowda, another MLA who had jumped on to the BJP bandwagon on the eve of the last assembly elections. While the state BJP president, B.S. Yediyurappa, claims his party will triple its 1991 tally of four seats, not many share his optimism. For one, the BJP has not been able to rope in new members and even veteran politicians, who were wooed to the fold, have been marginalised.
The erosion of the BJP vote bank is largely due to the fact that the party is still perceived as a north Indian upper-caste Hindu party. Local leaders who have quit are seen as victims of a party which has failed to understand the South. Points out Srikantadatta Wodeyar: "It's very difficult to sell the BJP to the Karnataka voter. Its Hindu-Hindi-Hindustani image imposed severe restrictions when we went out to canvass for votes."
The BJP's support base is the upper classes in cities like Bangalore. It is trying to broad base its appeal and project itself as a friend of the farmer, but has failed to make any significant inroads.
In Fighting Form
ALTHOUGH its topmost leader has been charge-sheeted in the hawala scam, the BJP in Rajasthan sees corruption as a solid electoral plank, as four of the state's most high-profile Congress leaders—Rajesh Pilot, Balram Jakhar, Natwar Singh and Buta Singh—are caught in the hawala net. "Narasimha Rao has sacrificed too many pawns to kill one wazir (Advani)," is the popular perception.
Overall, the BJP appears better prepared. Says Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat who cuts the tallest figure on the political landscape: "We are on the offensive on the issue of corruption." But despite not having a leader to match Shekhawat's stature, the Congress can still give the BJP a tough fight.
Since 1991, when it contested all 25 Lok Sabha seats for the first time, the BJP has expanded its organisational base at the grassroot level. The recent local bodies election, in which the BJP won most of the reserved seats, indicates that it has made gains among the SCs and STs. Shekhawat maintains the party has made inroads into the pro-Congress Jat community as well. In stark contrast to the Congress, Shekhawat has managed to keep dissidence under control. Troublesome party seniors like Deputy Chief Minister Hari Shankar Bhabra, state campaign committee chief Ghanshyam Tewari and PWD Minister Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi are reconciled.
The biggest chink in the BJP's armour is still the Jat-dominated western Rajasthan. While the Congress has a profusion of Jat leaders, the BJP does not have any. While Tewari insists his party will field Jat candidates of its own, he admits that it might anger the BJP-aligned Rajputs. Jat leader Sahib Singh Verma's appointment as Delhi chief minister is expected to garner some support for the BJP.
Since both Pilot and Jakhar are well-placed in their respective constituencies, the BJP stands to benefit if the hawala-tainted Congress MPs are not given tickets and contest the elections as Independents. Says Tewari: "The Congress does not have any strong alternatives." But Rajasthan PCC chief Ashok Gehlot feels it would be better if the party picked candidates with a clean image.