Can cornered Congress turn the tables on belligerent BJP?

THE Congress Party, for some mysterious reason, is refusing to make full use of its best assets in Uttar Pradesh - the state which elects as many as 80 MPs - as electioneering enters the most decisive phase in the upcoming general elections.

By S. N. M. Abdi

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Published: Mon 19 Apr 2004, 12:11 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:08 AM

Strangely, the Priyanka-Rahul duo is confined to Amethi-Rae Bareilly when they should be stomping across India’s most populous state reviving memories of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, the two icons who dwarf anyone the BJP has to offer, including Vajpayee.

Travelling across UP, I met many people who really miss Indira Gandhi in these hard times. They also long for Rajiv Gandhi. The Gandhis are remembered as ‘socialist’ leaders for whom the “garib”, or the poor, mattered. They are credited with “garibi hatao” (removing poverty). In contrast, they told me, the BJP believes in “garib hatao” (removing the poor). It’s difficult to fathom why the Congress is deploying Priyanka-Rahul on such a limited scale instead of unleashing them to tap the collective rage for electoral advantage.

Is the Congress demoralised by the deluge of pre-poll surveys that predict an outright victory for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance? Or does it have a game plan to take everybody by surprise before endgame? The latest survey has forecast 230 to 265 seats for the NDA and 170 to 200 for the Congress and its allies. And the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Communist Party of India(M) and Janata Dal(S) are expected to bag between 95 and 110 seats.

According to this survey, 49 per cent respondents in urban and rural constituencies spread across India seem to be in favour of Vajpayee as PM, while 27 per cent want Sonia Gandhi to replace him. But NDA might not be in such an advantageous position as the survey predicts when the votes are finally cast in the five-phase election. The BJP’s national ratings have fallen for a third straight week even before the sari tragedy in Lucknow and the Supreme Court’s scathing verdict in Gujarat’s bakery carnage case. Nobody knows whether the sari will eventually turn into a noose. The criminal case against Lalji Tandon, Vajpayee’s election manager in Lucknow, is a major blow that can cast its shadow on other constituencies in UP and beyond. The poor can be very unforgiving in an emotionally charged situation.

Moreover, the BJP’s attempts to project itself as the ‘natural party of governance’ believing in secularism and the rule of law have been exposed by the judgment in the Gujarat carnage case. This is bound to cost BJP the liberal Hindu vote.

As things stand, Samajwadi Party is the frontrunner in UP thanks to the Congress reticence to give Priyanka-Rahul full play. But in Maharashtra (48 seats), the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party has the edge, while in Andhra Pradesh (42) Congress-led and Telegu Desam-led groups are evenly poised.

In West Bengal (42), Left Front is the clear favourite with NDA constituent Trinamul Congress likely to lose seats because of a resurgent Congress. Bihar (40) is sending conflicting signals. Some believe that the NDA is ahead. Others insist that Laloo Prasad Yadav-Ramvilas Paswan-Congress combine has the edge.

The Congress appears to be in a happy position in Tamil Nadu (39) but is yet to come to terms with its shock defeat in the recent assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh (29) where BJP is well placed. And Karnataka (28), BJP and Congress are running neck and neck. But both in Gujarat (26) and Rajasthan (25) it’s advantage BJP.

In the northeastern states which account for 25 seats altogether, there is no clear favourite. But Congress fancies its prospects in Orissa (21) where NDA constituent Biju Janata Dal is battling an anti-incumbency wave.

A close race is predicted in Kerala (20) between Congress-led UDF and CPI(M)-led LDF. In Jharkhand, the Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha combine seem to have an edge over the BJP-led front. The Akali Dal is expected to bounce back in Punjab (13), while in Chattisgarh (11), BJP appears determined to do as well as it did in the recent assembly elections.

In Jammu and Kashmir (6), Congress, People’s Democratic Party, National Conference and BJP are in the race, while in Haryana (10), the Congress seems to have an advantage. But in Delhi (7), conventional wisdom has it that Congress will pay the price for incumbency with BJP bagging most seats. In the 1999 polls, BJP won 182 seats and its allies bagged 115 making the NDA virtually impregnable.

The Congress managed only 114 - its lowest-ever tally - while its allies won 23. But in post-1999 assembly elections, Congress improved its position dramatically, although it recently lost key states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh to the BJP. But despite the odds apparently stacked against the Congress, India’s oldest party claims it will turn the tables on the BJP because India is not “shining” at all and the common man is determined to teach NDA a lesson.

As the party in power, BJP has pulled out all stops to equate itself with India and claim credit for everything the country has achieved, whether it is American outsourcing or the cricket victory over Pakistan.

Outsourcing jobs are already under a cloud but BJP hopes that the feel-good factor fuelled by the historic cricket victory will translate into votes in the upcoming polls scheduled to start on May 20. Even before Sourav Ganguly’s boys got the better of Inzamamul Haq’s pack, the BJP started taking credit during election rallies for allowing India’s first full tour of Pakistan in almost 15 years. Significantly, Vajpayee allowed Team India to tour Pakistan overruling hardliners like Uma Bharti and staunch ally, Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray, because of concerted demand from secular and democratic forces in both nations for resumption of cricketing ties.

But experts believe that the outcome of the series will not necessarily boost the BJP vote. “This will have very little implications in actual voting but it will augment the ‘India Shining’ image of the government,” said Ashwani Kumar Ray, a senior political scientist at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), referring to the government’s election slogan.

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