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February 16, 1998


The host is absent at his own party!

Prem Panicker in Jalandhar

What if they throw a party, and nobody came?

At noon on February 16, I am sitting in a little teashop opposite the SDAS Senior Secondary School, in the midst of Jalandhar town. Watching, as voters trickle in through the school's side gate -- in ones and twos, with prolonged intervals in between.

I stroll down the road, to the Patel Chowk traffic junction. The Janata Dal polling officers occupy all of three trestle tables -- some 18 of them, for a booth with a total of 786 votes. At that point in time, only 37 people have exercised their franchise.

Just a couple of minutes earlier, I make a rather comical error. I spot a man at a roadside table, with sheaves of paper in his hand. And crowded around him are over a dozen men flourishing little slips of paper. I sidle up to the guy and go, 'Which party are you with?' I get a bank stare. So I peer at the slips of paper in the hands of the men surrounding him -- and realise they are not voting slips as I had imagined, but lottery tickets.

Meanwhile, back at the JD polling booth, there are just two ladies, standing by while the polling officers try to locate their names on the voting list.

A half-hour later, I am a couple of km away -- in front of the government school. An identical scene to the one I have left behind -- lots of JD and Akali Dal volunteers milling around at the party polling station. Two men manning the adjoining Congress station. Lots of security at the school entrance. And precious few voters in sight.

Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral is hosting a party in Jalandhar. Trouble is, no one's coming to it.

It's not that the banquet laid out is not sumptuous enough to tempt the partygoer -- in fact, Gujral has showered on Punjab an embarrassment of riches. For starters, there is the Rs 1.62 billion science city, on the Jalandhar-Kapurthala road, the foundation stone for which was laid in October. A medical college, cultural centres, school auditoria, an income tax tribunal, a Rs 100 million grant to enhance the city's water supply, Rs 25 million to beautify existing monuments to sundry martyrs of the freedom struggle...

At Patel Chowk, the traffic roundabout boasts a huge sign welcoming Gujral to MGM school to lay the foundation stone for an auditorium. Elsewhere, similar signs -- apparently the Gujral campaign spelt a boom for the foundation stone-makers.

And most controversially, there is the waiver of a Rs 85 billion central loan to the Punjab. The waiver was made on November 21 -- immediately after the Congress demanded the outer of the DMK ministers from the United Front government, and when it appeared that the Gujral government's days were numbered.

"It was so obviously a political bribe," rival candidate Umrao Singh of the Congress argues. Will it not earn the goodwill of the voters, I ask. "Why should it? Gujral has promised a waiver -- but has anyone seen a scrap of paper to that effect, with his name on it?"

Will he challenge Gujral's election on the ground of unfair poll practices? "For that, Gujral has to get elected first," quips the Congress candidate, who when I meet him is engaged in a lost minute, door to door campaign in Wadala village, where he has his home.

Sharp practice or no, the banquet Gujral has laid out for his constituency is rich, and varied. So why aren't people coming to the party?

The problem seems to be with the host himself -- there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm towards his candidature, especially from the Bharatiya Janata Party. And this more than any other single factor could explain the lukewarm voter turnout.

Two blocks further down the road from the SAD school is the Sheetla Mata Mandir -- which houses, within the complex, the Jalandhar GHQ of the BJP, the Yuva Morcha and the Bajrang Dal. I visit each of them in town. And find few people, none of the buzz you would expect on election day -- more so when your candidate is no less than the prime minister. Questions are met with evasive answers. Does the BJP support Gujral? "Our aim is to defeat the Congress," comes the non sequitur.

Compare this scene with the one at the Janata Dal GHQ. There are a couple of hundred volunteers milling around. In an inner room, Gujral's son Naresh, who has been orchestrating his father's campaign, is closeted with JD and SAD leaders.

The Gujral family is heavily into the campaign -- thus, while Naresh does the liaison, Gujral's wife Sheila and sisters Uma and Niti, I am told, are out on the trail, busily mobilising women voters.

Meanwhile, Akali leader Sarup Singh, state minister for urban development, is busy rapping out instructions, sending junior leaders off to various parts of the constituency to check on the progress of polling.

"Gujral will win with ease," Singh tells me. "He is the only candidate in the fray, the other eight including Umrao Singh will lose their deposits."

Is the BJP co-operating? "Of course they are, their volunteers are working shoulder to shoulder with ours," Singh asserts. "The biggest margin of victory in the Punjab will be Gujral's!"

He is less than convincing -- for what I have observed is at variance with Singh's assessment. At the JD polling station near SDS school, I take a volunteer aside are ask him why the response is so lukewarm. "It's a mess," he tells me. "No one knows which booth they belong to. So the voters come here, we fail to find their name in the roster. They head off to the next polling booth and some of them just give up and go home!"

Two days earlier, I was in Gurdaspur. And one person I run into is one of the seniormost functionaries of the Yuva Morcha, the BJP youth wing, in the Punjab. We discuss, among others, the progress of election work in the region.

Proudly, the functionary whips out a diary and shows me what he has done. He has been given charge of 17 polling booths in the village belt outside Pathankot. Each booth merits a page in his diary. Meticulously entered are the details -- number of homes, number of voters, this last divided into male and female, and so on. For each booth, he has appointed three observers. Besides, each booth has ten locals, appointed to go door to door and ensure that every single voter exercises his franchise. Of the ten, three are women, nominated to mobilise the women voters.

It's an example of meticulous organisation. But you know what is most remarkable? The Yuva Morcha functionary is from Jalandhar. Why aren't you working? "Jalandhar is not exactly our candidate," he shrugs. You mean the BJP is not supporting Gujral? "Well, the party line is to defeat the Congress," come the by now standard non sequitor.

A bit of discreet probing reveals one major grouse among the BJP cadres vis a vis Gujral. 'It is most probable that the BJP will be the largest single party, and as such will form the government," the YM functionary argues. "Suppose, however, that it does not get an absolute majority, but falls a few seats short -- tell me, will Gujral, after winning with the support of the SAD-BJP alliance, vote for the BJP government if it comes to a trial of strength?"

Intrigued, I ask him what his answer to that hypothesis would be. "At best, Gujral might abstain -- though I doubt it, as he will be under pressure to toe the official UF line of opposing the BJP."

This fear has cost Gujral the wholehearted backing of the BJP. And that is costing him dearly -- because though the Akalis are making a prestige issue out of ensuring a Gujral win, the SAD cadres are not in the same league with the highly disciplined BJP-RSS machinery when it comes to organisational skills.

In the 1997 assembly election, out of the nine seats that comprise the Jalandhar constituency, the Congress claimed four, while two went to the BJP and three to the SAD (the two parties being in alliance). And it is in the two BJP segments that the party's less than enthusiastic support could hurt Gujral..

To make matters worse, Gujral is facing the direct opposition of the well-entrenched All India Trade Union Congress, the trade union wing of UF constituent, the Communist Party of India. Thus, a boycott call by the AITUC (the INTUC also gave a similar call) forced Gujral to cancel a scheduled address to trade unions on February 9, rather than risk an embarrassingly low turn-out.

The AITUC's anger stems from what it calls Gujral's "misuse" of religious places during his campaign. The PM has, besides visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, made it a point to visit, during his campaign, every temple, church, and gurdwara in his constituency, while constantly harping on the "secular" theme.

While this is the AITUC's stated reason, they have a deeper cause for anger. The Left parties were none too keen on Gujral getting the backing of the BJP-SAD combine which, for the UF, is anathema. To make matters worse, Gujral then went back on his stated promise that he would not share a campaign platform with the BJP and SAD -- thus, on the day he fielded his nomination, Gujral addressed three separate SAD rallies in and around Jalandhar, including one at Company Bagh where he shared the dais with the likes of Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal and Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee head Gurcharan Singh Tohra, while contenting himself with a token appearance at a UF rally at the Desh Bhagat Yadgaar Hall. And the slight still rankles.

Interestingly, it is Gujral's ideological hairpin bend -- a UF leader, but backed by the BJP-SAD -- that the Congress is hammering away at. Thus, while Gujral attacks the Congress for pulling down his government, perpetuating instability and letting the country in for the expense of a mid-term poll, the Congress goes for the jugular.

"What is this man, who is neither fish nor fowl?" Umrao Singh demands with heat. "The UF opposes the BJP, Gujral is the UF prime minister and he is supported by the BJP! This gives the lie to Gujral's claim that the Congress toppled his government. We were ready to compromise but it was Gujral who was adamant, Gujral who resigned and advised the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha. Why? Obviously, because he was engaged in a deeper conspiracy with the BJP!"

I leave the environs of the city, and head off to the traditional Congress stronghold -- the villages in the Daaba region, sandwiched between the rivers Sutlej and Beas. Here, there is more polling activity then in the city -- but not of any feverish proportions.

The pure Punjabi patois of Sarpanch Parmukh Singh defeats me, and I am forced to turn to the driver of my car for interpretation. Who will win? "Gujralsahib." Why? Because of all that he has done for Jalandhar? "No. Umrao Singh (the Congress candidate) is a miser, he does not spend any money!"

'Nuff said, I think. Wondering, during my drive back, whatever happened to all those 'issues' the media spends reams analysing.

As we enter the city, I pass a movie house. Jyoti. Now showing the Sunil Shetty-starrer Vinashak. On as impulse, I hop off and check with the manager. 'Houseful,' he says, "but since you are from Bombay and our mehmaan..."

The time is 3.15 pm. I disclaim any burning desire to see Vinashak and have my driver take me around to the other theatres. Friends, featuring Sunny Deol-starrer Zor. Naaz, billing Mira Nair's Kama Sutra, Four shows a day, at each -- 10, 1, 4 and 7. And, on November 16, the day Jalandhar is scheduled to vote for or against Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, all three theatres are booked solid for all four shows.

No one's coming for Gujral's party -- not even the candidate himself. My tour ends at the JD party office, whether Sarup Singh is still holding court. How's it going? "Very well!" But no one is coming out to vote. "Nahin, our people are all voting, it is the Congress voters who are not enthused by their candidate." And where is Gujralsaab, could you help me meet him? "Oh, he went to Delhi on 14th after campaigning ended, he is still there!" He didn't come to Jalandhar today? "No," says Sarup Singh. "Why should he, when we are here to make sure he wins?"

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