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November 16, 1998


Despite opinion polls, Congress has a tough task

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George Iype in New Delhi

A ferocious fight between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party is in the offing for the Delhi legislative assembly, for two reasons.

One: for the first time in the country, two women -- Chief Minister Sushma Swaraj and Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee president Shiela Dixit -- are leading the charge of the prime contenders.

Two: the combination of issues confronting the two women is quite incendiary -- the unprecedented rise in prices of vegetables and other essential commodities; the rapidly growing incidence of murder and kidnapping; and the shortage of basic amenities like water and electricity.

In the last five years, the BJP has changed two chief ministers. But that has hardly had a positive impact on the city's problems.

On the contrary, five years of presiding over the national capital has given the BJP a host of headaches. Fighting between the party's two leading politicians in Delhi -- former chief ministers Sahib Singh Verma and Madan Lal Khurana -- has grown so much that a sizeable number of disgusted voters could drift to the Congress.

Local BJP politicians fear that despite the many campaign meetings to be addressed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani, the party is losing its stronghold thanks to the Khurana-Verma war.

Swaraj also has to face the banner of revolt raised by pro-BJP caste groups. While the Jats are angry with Verma's ouster as chief minister, the Punjabis are as cut up that Khurana did not get the post. And to top it all, the Aggarwals are annoyed with Swaraj's decision to axe former transport minister Rajendra Singh.

"Sahib Singh's removal as CM on the eve of elections has not reduced the tension in the party," a local BJP politician admitted. "In fact, Swaraj's woes have multiplied."

Last week, Swaraj had more problems as she was launching her campaign. Ved Singh, a BJP rebel contesting Nangloi Jat on a Samata Party ticket, was killed and allegations began flying thick and fast that Verma was somehow involved. Khurana, never one to miss an opportunity to have a go at his bete noire, immediately made noises that embarrassed the party further.

Yet, Nand Kishore Gard, the BJP candidate from Tri Nagar, insists the problems the party faces are "minor" and will not sway BJP voters. "It is an impossible proposition that the BJP voters in the capital will cast their votes for Congress candidates," he told Rediff On The NeT.

"What is at work," Gard argued, "is the anti-incumbency factor, not any bad performance by the BJP in the past five years. It could result in the loss of a few seats at worst."

The optimistic Garg predicted the BJP would win at least 45 seats in the 70-member assembly. In the 1993 election, the party had bagged 49 seats while the Congress had won 14, the Janata Dal four, and Independents three.

In the 1998 Lok Sabha election too, the BJP won 51 per cent of the votes in the capital. But though the Congress bagged just one seat out of seven in Delhi, its vote share improved from 34.5 to 43 per cent.

Therefore, Congress politicians led by Dixit claim the BJP can no longer bank on support from its mohalla-level network in the city -- the middle class, government servants, traders, merchants, businessmen, and the refugee communities.

"The BJP's non-performance has affected every section in the city. Two chief ministers failed and the third is a face-saver. Swaraj is not a leader with any concrete plans for a national city like Delhi," Dixit told Rediff On The NeT.

According to the Congress chief ministerial aspirant, her party will get a majority for the simple reason that Delhiites are frightened to live in the capital as the BJP government has refused to provide them protection.

"The BJP has made Delhi the most unliveable city in the country. Therefore, we are destined to win," said Dixit.

With Congress president Sonia Gandhi being the party's star campaigner, Dixit believes "we have won the hearts of Delhiites". "With mind-blowing murders and price rise being the BJP's main achievements, the Congress has become Delhi's best bet now," she added.

But though opinion polls have predicted a Congress sweep in the capital, many believe the party will find it difficult to wrest power from the BJP.

The spectre of rebel candidates fighting the official nominees in as many as 15 constituencies haunts the Congress. And the Sikhs, the community that matters most in Delhi, remain indifferent to it.

Sikh voters are enraged that the party's star local campaigners are the people they hate most: Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler, and H K L Bhagat -- the men accused of masterminding the anti-Sikh riots in 1984.

Sonia received lukewarm response at a meeting of Sikhs she attended last week. And many in the party fear that senior Congressman S S Ahluwalia's decision to rake up the riots issue could upset the party's chances in North Delhi constituencies.

Adding to the party's problem is its failure to cash in on the vote banks in the East and Outer Delhi parliamentary constituencies that together have 41 assembly seats. "The Jats, the rural class, the migrants, and slum-dwellers are in East and Outer Delhi. Therefore, our success will solely depend on the voting pattern in these areas," says a local Congressman. In 1993, the BJP had bagged most of the 41 seats in East and Outer Delhi.

Assembly Elections '98

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