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Saffron Edge In The West

Wracked by infighting, the Congress floors most of its chances

Saffron Edge In The West
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IS the sun about to set on the Congress in the West? Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa may be as different as chalk from cheese and cashew on the Indian political smorgasbord. But as campaigning enters its last week, the three states in their own ways are beginning to mirror all that is wrong with the century-old party in the region of its birth.

The big-two western states have benefited the most from the Narasimha Rao Government's economic reforms. But the party has not been able to cash in. Worse, sent hurtling to defeat in the assembly elections, the party machinery has gone to seed. Its leaders have been busy playing petty little games of oneupmanship. The shortcomings of the ruling dispensations have been left unexploited. Result: there is little to look forward to for Rao's beleaguered organisation except to hope and pray that things will not get any worse.

The scenario is bleak any which way you look at it. In Maharashtra, where the party held 38 seats, Congress leaders privately admit that they may retain less than 25. Independent political observers say its chances are bleak in all but one of the six seats in Bombay city, probably the biggest beneficiary of Rao's reforms. Only Gurudas Kamat in Bombay North-east is felt to have a good chance. In Bombay South, Murli Deora is fighting his toughest battle yet. Of the three seats from the Konkan region, Union Health Minister A.R. Antulay's Kolaba seat is considered the safest.

In neighbouring Gujarat, where the BJP government's shenanigans had provided the Congress a chance to worm its way back into voters' hearts, it's still to get off the starting block in right earnest. Influential leaders like Madhavsinh Solanki have withdrawn from the scene. The state Congress leadership is divided. The party machinery has rusted. If the Congress improves upon its 1991 picking of six seats, it will be despite its worst efforts.

With just two seats up for grabs, Goa understandably figures low in the Congress scheme of things, but even there, the political theatre has a less than heroic script for Union minister Eduardo Faleiro, seeking re-election for the fourth time straight. Minority voters, always the Congress' votecow, are blaming it for having taken them for granted and are threatening to teach it a lesson.

Contrast the Congress with its arch rivals who have employed street-smart savvy to tide over heavy local weather. In Vidarbha and Marathwada, for instance, the BJP-Sena combine is all set to up its 1991 tally of nine seats through a combination of vision and tactics. Sena chief Bal Thackeray whose ill health has otherwise prevented him from campaigning for candidates across the state, had scheduled three meetings in the backward region. But with his eldest son Binda Thackeray's sudden death on April 20, it is not certain whether the Sena supremo will be able to abide by his schedule.

In Gujarat, where a Congress-style internal revolt last September threatened to negate the splendid gains the party had made, the decision to field prime minister-in-waiting Atal Behari Vajpayee from Gandhinagar has suddenly resuscitated the party. Initially wary of losing between three and six seats from the 20 it holds as a result of the ouster of Keshubhai Patel because of the 'Sin of Shankersinh', it is now confident of suffering little damage.

Although Faleiro may scrape through in Goa, it is becoming clear that new trends are emerging in the nation's youngest state. Catholics, nearly 30 per cent of the population, are seeking to sever their traditional links with the Congress.

All through the campaign, the Congress has appeared distinctly out of touch with the changing political landscape around it, and the changing groundrules. While the upbeat BJP lost no time in requisitioning the services of star campaigners, in Maharashtra, the Congress depended solely on Sharad Pawar. The former chief minister is hopping from district to district, leaving only the last three campaign days for his own constituency, Baramati.

True, Rao did launch the campaign of Lok Sabha speaker Shivraj Patil in Latur. But publicity for the Prime Minister's visit was conspicuously lacking. When cries of 'pous enar' (it's going to rain) rent the air, the crowds began deserting. The few who stayed back to hear Rao weren't impressed. Said Govind Kulkarni, a typist: "He talked of stability and national issues, but he forgot to mention the earthquake. For us that is the most important issue."

The BJP on the other hand has met the most crucial issue in Gujarat—the dissidence in its ranks—head-on. The Patel-Vaghela war is over with Suresh Mehta being installed chief minister. But the antics of the dissidents and loyalists continue to be a constant source of embarrassment to the party. Vajpayee's entry has blunted the rebels' posture a little, but the party is leaving nothing to chance.

Its lodestars are coming thick and fast. Vajpayee has already completed a two-day visit. Advani, aware of his stake in the state which sent him to Parliament, is undertaking a trip towards the end of the month. But nobody knows better than the BJP how to whip up fervour influencing voter-opinion. Workers are jubilant that Sadhvi Rithambara will be visiting the state soon. But the BJP rank and file continues to find the going tough in at least half-a-dozen constituencies and Keshubhai Patel's exit which left a sour taste in the mouth of the powerful Patel community continues to linger.

For party workers, Patel has become what C.K. Jaffer Sharief is for Karnataka Muslims—who don't seem in a mood to forgive Rao for deserting Sharief. Similarly, the Patels, intent on teaching a lesson to the 'traitors', the Khajurias as they have come to be known, for dislodging their leader. In Godhra, for instance, where dissident-in-chief Vaghela is contesting, the Congress candidate Manubhai Kotari, a Patel himself, has been instigating his fellow Patels to isolate the BJP for the treatment it meted out to Keshubhai at the instance of Vaghela.

Tiny Goa is following its own course. Goa's Catholics have traditionally voted Congress because, as former MLA Radharao Gracias says, they had no choice: they could neither vote BJP nor the local Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party. This time things might be a wee bit different.

"We are about to issue an appeal to voters to cast their franchise not on the basis of the parties they represent but on their character," says Fr Albert Luis who played a key role in the protests over the Konkan railway route alignment. And the man who might eat into the Congress votebank is MLA and former chief minister Churchill Alemao who is telling voters that only a regional party will protect Goa's interests.

If Faleiro feels threatened in South Goa, the Congress' North Goa position is worse. After last-minute delays, the party named MP Amrut Kansar as its nominee after Goa PCC chief Nirmala Sawant declined, citing domestic priorities. Chief Minister Pratap-sinh Rane lobbied hard for his man to ensure that predecessor Ravi Naik was kept out. Rane won the war: but like in the rest of the region, the party probably lost.

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