DESPITE inner contradictions and con- a fusion, the Left alliance led by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has emerged as the major challenge to the Congress. In the 1991 elections, the Congress had scored in both the parliamentary and assembly elections. Of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, the party bagged eight; and in the assembly polls it won 66 of the 126 seats. The AGP could muster no more than one Lok Sabha and 19 assembly seats. And the CPI(M) had managed just one Lok Sabha constituency.
Things look brighter for the Left alliance this time since the AGP has decided to underplay the problem of illegal Bangladeshi migration into the state. The party manifesto talks of national unity, peace and communal harmony. This has come as a relief to the CPI(M), which was concerned that the hardline stand on this issue could cost the Left Front the Muslim vote.
The CPI(M) was anyway committed to an alliance with the AGP since its central leadership had decided to align itself, wherever possible, with regional parties to ensure that they did not go over to the BJP. (In Assam, the BJP had won nine assembly and two Lok Sabha seats in 1991 and is contesting this election on its own.) The AGP has fielded candidates in 99 assembly and 11 parliamentary constituencies. The CPI(M) and the CPI are contesting nine and 10 assembly seats, respectively, while the former is testing its strength in two Lok Sabha seats too.
The Left has kicked off its campaign in right earnest and senior CPI(M) leaders like Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Sitaram Yechuri have been making regular visits to the state. By all accounts, the Left combine is better placed than it was in the last elections. However, the Congress still remains the stronger force in the state.
THE state is seen as the homeground of the CPI(M). And though the Left parties did suffer a setback in the civic polls, the Third Front's prospects look encouraging. The early start made by the Left in its campaign seems to be paying off. With just a week or so to go for elections, the general impression is that the Left bastion won't suffer any major cracks. In the 1991 elections, the Left bagged 37 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats. And of the 294 assembly constituencies, the CPI(M) and its allies had cornered 246.
The Left is likely to maintain its dominance in the state, although in 1991 the Congress did improve marginally on its 1989 tally of four parliamentary seats. And to its credit, the Congress has kept the pressure on the Jyoti Basu government all through the five years; however, much of its gains have been squandered away, thanks to a never-ending internecine battle between WBPCC President Somen Mitra and Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. The maverick MP who quit the Lower House in a huff to strengthen the party in the state did the Congress quite a bit of good, but became a source of embarrassment with her open denunciation of party colleagues and her recent pre-nomination antics.
This is not to say that the Left does not have its share of problems. Five years of anti-Left propaganda, rising unemployment since the Front came to power in 1977 and recent reverses in the panchayat and civic elections have taken their toll. To add to its woes, the Front has been riddled with intra-party problems of its own. In Midnapore in the south, senior CPI(M) leaders like Abani Satpathi, Sambhu Mandi, Nambendu Hotu, Mihir Rana and Jyotirmoy Dey have not plunged into the campaign. In the same district CPI loyalists have been at daggers with the party high command over its nominees in Panskura, Danaton and other constituencies.
The BJP drew a blank in three previous elections but CPI(M) leaders in Malda and Murshidabad admit that countering the party's 'communal propoganda' vis-a-vis illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has become a major campaign headache. In Darjeeling, old CPI(M) faithfuls have been shocked over the party's dalliance with GNLF chief Subhas Ghising. But, all things considered, Jyoti Basu has every reason to be optimistic that his long-running apple cart will not be upset.
DESPITE Biju Patnaik's enormous popularity and charisma, the chips are clearly down for the Janata Dal in this eastern state. Not only have some of its leaders left for greener pastures, it is also crippled by a cash crunch. Biju is waxing defensive on this basis: "In normal circumstances we would have walked away with 16 of the 21 seats. But we don't have the kind of money the Congress has. They are just going to buy votes."
In the 1991 elections, the Janata Dal had managed to win only six Lok Sabha seats. But with death of Bhagey Govardhan and the defection of G.C. Munda, Anadi Das and Rabi Ray, the party's strength has been reduced effectively to two: Srikant Jena and Brajkishore Tripathy. And of the two, only the latter remains loyal to Patnaik—he is seeking re-election from Puri against an alleged Chandraswami associate, Pinaki Mishra. On the other hand, Jena has been trying to project himself as an alternative to Patnaik but has not made any real headway in that direction.
Political observers point out that Biju is in a vengeful mood for two reasons: for being periodically ditched by his own confidants and for being chargesheeted by the J.B. Patnaik government in two cases. If he is sufficiently enraged, there could be trouble for Jena who has left Cuttack to contest from Kendrapara. According to one Congress leader, Jena had threatened to file his nomination from Bhubaneshwar, which would have meant a match of wits between him and J.B. Patnaik's son-in-law, Soumya Ranjan Patnaik. But Jena got a weak Congress candidate in Kendrapara, and Soumya Ranjan, until recently a senior BJP functionary, became the official Congress candidate from the state capital.
There are also problems between Biju Patnaik and his Left Front ally, Lokanath Chowdhary of the CPI. Chowdhary, who is held responsible for cutting into Janata Dal votes in the 1995 assembly elections, will now have to contend with the presence of Nityananda Samantaray, the official Janata Dal candidiate from the Jagatsinghpur parliamentary constituency. However, a CPI campaigner says: "We don't consider Samantaray a genuine Janata Dal man. He was in the Congress till recently."
But in Orissa, personal ties are more important than ideology. A sizeable section of the CPI continues to back Patnaik, and the BJP has actually pulled out in favour of the Janata Dal candidate in Behrampur, from where the Prime Minister is contesting.
THE ruling Left Front must be heaving a sigh of relief that assembly elections are not taking place simultaneously, sparing it and the voters of the violence that has become an essential poll ingredient in the state. But the party bosses will still have to reckon with an equally potent factor: former chief minister and recently resurgent CPI(M) stalwart Nripen Chakravarty.
The havoc that Chakravarty's onslaught on the criminalisation and corruption in the CPI(M) wreaked two years ago continues to be felt even now, though he is no longer with the party. And the veteran is still going strong and recently called Jyoti Basu a 'coward'. But party cadres are taking solace from the fact that he spoke well of the party nominees for the Tripura East and West parliamentary seats, Bajuban Riyan and Badal Chaudhur y, respectively.
Riyan, a tribal leader, who has lost twice and won twice from this predominantly tribal constituency had complained that the Congress had employed rigging and terror tactics in 1991. But the winner in that election, Bibhu Devi, the scion of the Tripura royal family, has bid goodbye to the Congress and joined the Tiwari Congress. The Congress (T) has next to no presence in ths state, putting Riyan on a strong wicket.
The situation is more intriguing in the other seat, Tripura West, where former state PCC chief Ashok Bhattacharya, a Pranab Mukherjee loyalist, is pitted against Badal Chaudhary. Bhattacharya is known to be a bit of a Bengali hardliner. This he can afford to be since Bengalis comprise 76 per cent of the population, outnumbering the tribals several times over. But with the Tripura Upajati Prajati Yuba Sangh withdrawing its support to the Congress, he is attempting to gain some acceptibility among the tribals.
FOR once in his life, Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav—the quintessential 'anti-establishment politician'—is hop -ing that the status quo remains unchanged. The Janata Dal and its allies won over 45 per cent of the popular vote in the last Lok Sabha elections and, in a state where caste plays a crucial role in the polls, the minimal changes done in the equation augur well for the ruling party.
On that count, Yadav seems fairly well placed, with the Muslims and a sizeable section of the OBCs backing him. Though it is early days yet, another factor working in Laloo's favour is that unlike in Uttar Pradesh—where there is a degree of resentment within the Dalit community towards the 'neo-privileged' Yadavs, who in many parts seem to have taken over the role of oppressor from the upper castes—he has managed to pamper his kinsmen without causing too much of resentment among fellow-backward castes and Dalits. The fact that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), despite assiduous attempts to emerge as a force, has not been able to make much headway in Bihar only reinforces this impression.
Laloo, the shrewd politician that he is, has sought to press home this advantage with an extremely clever selection of candidates. Then, there is the fact that the Samata Party-BJP alliance, which has emerged as a strong force in the state, is unlikely to make too large a dent in the Dal's Muslim-OBC votebank.
As for issues, the hawala scam is not going to have a major impact on the electorate, though localised corruption scandals are an issue. The Opposition has concentrated its energies on the 'lack of development' in the state under Laloo, unkept promises and the animal husbandry scam which has tainted Laloo's standing somewhat, at least in the urban areas. But even while asserting that the Dal-Left alliance is going to win a lesser number of seats, "provided vote-rigging is kept to a minimum", Samata-BJP sources concede that Laloo will prevail eventually. "Izzat to dee hai pichde tapke ko usne," they add. And that is what Laloo confidants say will see the Third Front through in Bihar.
However, Laloo does have to deal with the strong support the Kurmi community has shown for the BJP-Samata combine, which will present difficulties for him in a number of constituencies in central and northern Bihar where their vote can be decisive. Also, the Dal is contesting the 14 seats in south Bihar alone (in 1991 it was in an alliance with the JMM which won six seats), where its support base is nowhere near as strong as it is in the rest of the state. Here too, growing support for the Samata-BJP is noticeable, adding to the combine's strength in the towns and among the middle class and upper castes. In the rural areas the BJP-Samta combine hopes to reap the bulk of the Kurmi-Koeri votes and win about ten to twelve seats.
But then, the BJP, which is fighting most of the seats in Jhark-hand, has problems of its own and sources claim that the party has ruined its chances in a couple of seats due to "bad selection of candidates". And Laloo has attempted to heal the Dal's hamstring problem in south Bihar by nominating a number of "election-eve defectors" from the JMM, BJP and Congress for the seats in Jhark-hand in the absence of strong Dal-Left candidates. The fiasco relating to Shailendra Mahto has also done the BJP no good.
That it is not going to be all smooth sailing for Laloo is pretty much clear, it still remains to be seen whether this will have much of an impact on his final tally.
THERE is no way the ruling Janata Dal can do worse than it did in 1991. Then it was a hopelessly divided party, out of power. The picture has since changed dramatically. Its leaders put up a united front to recapture power in the 1994 assembly election and later the party even romped home in the municipal, corporation and zilla panchayat polls. Deve Gowda, Ramakrishna Hegde and company are bracing for an encore.
Janata Dal leaders seem confident that the tide is in their favour. The party has seen its voteshare climb from 18.5 per cent in 1991 to 33 per cent in 1994. It swept the three-tier zilla panchayat elections early last year and bagged the highest number of seats in the urban civic body elections early this year. Says state Dal President C.M. Ibrahim about the party's prospects in the coming polls: "We will win at least 20 seats, if not more."
The Janata Dal's task has been made much easier by the manner in which the Congress has selected its candidates. Congressmen say the high command has forfeited half-a-dozen constituencies even before the votes could be cast. Besides, the traditional Congress votebase of the Scheduled Castes and Muslims seems to have shifted to the Dal. The BJP, shorn of its Ayodhya slogan, will probably add just a couple of seats to its tally of four in 1991. Although the killing of U. Chittaranjan, the BJP MLA from coastal Bhatkal, is expected to boost the party's chances, Janata Dal campaign managers are confident of walking away with at least half the 28 seats.
But the Dal has its fair share of worries. The lacklustre performance of the 16-month-old Gowda government, the reluctance of selected candidates to contest and the disaffection among traditional non-Congress, non-BJP voters are expected to have their impact on the party showing. And, in a recent setback, seven ministers directed by Gowda to file their papers failed to comply, though four grudgingly agreed later. But the damage was done.
Gowda has also antagonised leaders of the majority Lingayat community in north Karnataka by turning down demands for plum posts and portfolios. With members of Gowda's Vokkaliga community walking away with the prize posts, the Lingayats, who had returned to the Janata Dal in the assembly elections, are feeling left out. Much of the Lingayat discontentment is being directed at Hegde, a Brahmin, whom they hold responsible for not asserting himself in party fora.
THE eight-party Puro-gami Lokshahi Morcha (PLM) is not expected to make any major gains at the expense of the Congress and the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. What the PLM is banking on is a consolidation of Dalit and Muslim votes which would help them a few stray seats. Says Sanjeev Chimbulkar, general secretary of the constituent Janata Dal: "In 1991, there were 10-15 constituencies where we were in a one-to-one fight with the Congress. We may win a few of these this time."
Among the seats the PLM is hoping to win is Rajapur in the Konkan region. Traditionally a socialist base, in 1991 the sympathy wave whipped up by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi had worked against Madhu Dandavate, and the beneficiary was Congress candidate Sudhir Sawant. Things should be much tougher for Sawant now, with five-time winner Dandavate in the fray yet again.
What has lent a semblance of credibility to the unity efforts of the Third Front this time round is that it did not come unstuck as soon as the parties came together. The splintered Dalit factions which united under the Republican Party of India (RPI) banner, for instance, have managed to stay together so far. The Front's success hinges on its ability to keep the alliance intact.
The conglomeration is hoping to cash in on the disenchantment with both the BJP and Congress; but strangely enough, the upbeat BJP is banking on the PLM to cut into Congress votes. In Bombay North-East, BJP strongman Pramod Mahajan is involved in a three-cornered contest with sitting Congress MP Gurudas Kamat and RPI leader Ramadas Athavale. A former state minister, Athavale says he is an attractive alternative for the Dalits and Muslims who constitute 30 per cent of the electorate in the constituency.
The PLM is hoping to net the Muslim vote en bloc, but there is no saying which way the Muslim vote will go after the ulemas issued a general call to vote Congress.
THE CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has the edge in what is slated to be a very keenly contested election. The divide in the Congress—between those supporting Chief Minister A.K. Antony and those swearing allegiance to Union Industries Minister K. Karunakaran—is working to the advantage of the LDF, which hopes to improve considerably on its 1991 tally when it managed to win only five Lok Sabha seats. Now its campaign managers predict that it could win 10-12 parliamentary seats.
Unlike other states which may vote a regional party to the assembly and a national-level party to the Lok Sabha, the Kerala voter, once he puts his faith in a particular party or front, tends to vote for it at both levels. Also, there has never been an instance when the electorate has re-elected a party in power for a second consecutive term. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) won the 1991 elections and poll pundits predict a vote in favour of the LDF. The CPI(M), which had won just three parliamentary seats in the last elections, has 11 optimistic candidates this time. And nine seats have been left to its partners in the LDF. The Congress, which won 13 parliamentary seats in 1991, is contesting 17 seats this time, leaving the remaining three for its allies. While Congress leaders are hopeful that the party and its allies will bag at least 16 seats, it looks like it will be difficult. The trend in the assembly elections also looks tilted in the LDF's favour.
THE good news for the Congress, which is still to recover from the severe drubbing N.T. Rama Rao gave it in the 1994 assembly elections, is that the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is a divided house. It is banking on Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and Lakshmi Parvathi, who is seeking revenge for the manner in which her husband was toppled, to cancel each other out.
Parvathi says Andhra Pradesh will decide who will form the next government at the Centre. With the state sending 42 MPs to the Lower House, there is a grain of truth in the claim, but with two TDPs fighting to retain the 13 seats that the united TDP bagged in 1991, she has a tough task on hand. Says Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy of the Congress: "We are going to repeat our feats of 1977 and 1980 when the Congress won 41 out of the 42 seats."
But it's not going to be so easy. NTR's charisma has helped Parvathi draw huge crowds in the hinterland and Naidu too has been actively campaigning. The division in the TDP ranks, com -pounded by the acrimonious decision of the Left parties and the Janata Dal to tag along with different factions may have dented the Third Force's chances, but only marginally so.
WITH Mulayam Singh Yadav finally becoming a part of the Third Force, the fight is mainly between the BJP and the Samajawadi Party-led alliance with the Janata Dal and the Left Front. But the BSP's strong presence in a number of constituencies and Mulayam's steadfast refusal to include Kanshi Ram's party in the alliance might adversely affect the prospects of the Third Force.