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December 23, 1998


Congress resurgence worries rivals in UP

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Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow

The Congress wins in the assembly election has worried its rivals in Uttar Pradesh, where the party had been virtually written off by all and sundry.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Samajwadi Party, which have been the main players in UP for the last 10 years -- with intermittent flirtations with the Bahujan Samaj Party -- are in for a tough battle against a resurgent party that has ruled the state for four decades.

State SP chief Ram Saran Das also tacitly admitted the inroads the Congress has made when he said, "So what if the Congress is on the comeback trail? It is going to only dig into the BJP vote banks." And asked the same question, a senior BJP official retorted, "The Congress will only eat into the SP's minority and the BSP's dalit base."

So members of neither party discount that the Congress is back in the reckoning now. What comes as a further ratification of this view is an off-the-cuff remark by state BJP president Raj Nath Singh, "Yes, the fight in the coming days will be only between the BJP and the Congress."

SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, however, said, "The Congress may have made it in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, but UP is a different ball game. The Congress gained in those states not on its own, but mainly because of two factors -- firstly, the failure of the BJP and, secondly, because the SP hasn't much of a presence in those states."

"UP will go the way the Samajwadi Party wants it to. The Congress is non-existent here, while the BJP has proved a non-performer and an utter flop. So, obviously, the people of Uttar Pradesh can see hope only in the third alternative, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha," Mulayam Singh added.

Going by statistics, Mulayam Singh may have a point, a point he jabbed in at his convention in his hometown Etawah earlier this week. After repeated fragmentation, the Congress is the smallest group in the 425-member state assembly now, against the SP's 109. A fractured BSP today retains a group of 40, while the BJP remains the single largest party, with 175 members.

Logically, there is some substance in his argument too, since he went on to ask, ''Even if the Congress gains, how much will its graph rise? At best, by 10 per cent, which means that it may register an increase from its present status of 3 per cent to 13 per cent. Still, to what avail? Can it dream of coming to power with a mere 13 per cent votes?"

In his attack against the Congress, Mulayam Singh has been quick to remind Muslims that the Congress was responsible for laying the foundation (shilanyas) at the much-debated Ram temple in Ayodhya. Furthermore, he also repeatedly recalled the passive role of the P V Narasimha Rao government at the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Mulayam Singh has much to gain by running down the Congress, since a shift in the vote patterns of the Muslims, whose disenchantment with the SP is becoming evident, would mean a gain for the Congress.

At present, Mulayam Singh hopes that if the Congress gains, it will be at the BJP's expense, not the SP. But he is clearly miffed with the Congress, since it refused to help him pull down the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and make him the prime minister of a "secular front".

The Congress, despite its small size in UP, appears to be going for both the SP and the BJP. The new UPCC chief, Salman Khursheed, who has been trying to establish contact with the man on the street, appears to have made some headway already, bringing back to the Congress fold some voters who had changed sides.

Sonia Gandhi's efforts to win back the Muslims -- by repeatedly apologising for the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque and by making a Muslim the UPCC chief -- has surely made some difference. There is some clear softening visible in the Muslims now.

According to Colonel Fasih Ahmed (retd), "The post-Ayodhya period saw a sudden antipathy against the Congress, and there was a natural drift towards the SP. That was because the Muslims could see no one else capable enough of keeping communal forces at bay... What really reassured them was the firing Mulayam Singh Yadav ordered on violent kar sevaks who stormed the Babri mosque in 1990.

Interestingly, it was only later that Muslims praised Mulayam Singh for his action.

"You see, our initial reaction to the firing wasn't favourable... But after the Babri mosque was pulled down in 1992, Mulayam got the opportunity to tell us that if he had not ordered the firing, the mosque would have been brought down two years earlier. That seemed to make sense, and caused the Muslim majority to fall in line with the SP," says Colonel Ahmed.

Six years after the demolition of the mosque, the minorities have begun to have second thoughts about Mulayam Singh after seeing him both in and out of power.

What has Mulayam Singh given them apart from raising the bogey of communalism, ask most young Muslims in UP. "Yes we are fully aware how communal the BJP is, but what harm has it been able to cause after it came into power?" asks Ejaz, a young student, "Mulayam still insists on creating a fear psychosis, obviously to insure the support of the minorities."

Some Dalits are also disillusioned that the BSP has given them no support. A major drift in the Dalit vote is not expected, and, anyway, a BSP tie-up with the Congress cannot be ruled out. The backwards continue to remain divided between the BJP and SP. However, apart from Muslims, what the Congress is expecting to fall in its lap is a section of Brahmins, who had crossed over to the BJP over the past decade.

According to political commentator S V Singh, "Both minorities and Brahmins have one thing common about them -- they prefer to back the party with the potential to ride to power." He said in the current political circumstances, the Congress is seen as the potential political power centre.

A lot many of those who had shifted from the Congress to the BJP are disappointed with saffron rule.

"We had pinned many hopes on the BJP, but the party has missed a golden chance," comments a senior Brahmin bureaucrat. "The BJP's vote-catching slogan, Sabko dekha baar baar, humko dekho ek baar has now fallen flat," he says.

Of course, a big Congress reversal of fortune would demand a lot of work, much more than that already done by Khursheed. But Khursheed lacks an able and dedicated team, due to the inherent problems of sycophancy and lethargy in the party rank and file. But the younger lot repose much hope in Khursheed's leadership.

"You see, he is the first youth leader in so many years and I am sure, with the transparency he believes in, the Congress will return to power not very long from now," says Devendra Pratap Singh, a former MLC from Rae Bareli.

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