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November 17, 1998


Rebels may scuttle Congress chances in Rajasthan

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Amberish K Diwanji in Jaipur

The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress are slugging it out in Rajasthan over two issues: price rise and development of the state. Other issues have taken a back seat in the election campaign.

The BJP today claimed that price rise as an issue was over. "Onions today have come down to Rs 6 per kilogram," BJP spokesman Sunil Bhargava told Rediff On The NeT, "and is no longer an issue with the people." He was sure that by the time polling day (November 25) comes around, the people would no longer be bothered by it.

However, an autorickshaw driver laughed at the BJP claim. "Saab," he said, "onions this morning has come down from Rs 40 to Rs 30. In some areas, it is Rs 35."

It is clear the BJP is working overtime in bringing down the prices of food commodities. But in Rajasthan, they have an advantage. Unlike other north Indian states and regions like Delhi where onions is a staple diet, onions are not in great demand in southern Rajasthan.

"In south Rajasthan, onions are not too important in the regular diet. The Jains and many Marwaris do not eat onions in their diet. And the others will willingly stop buying them if the prices are too high," says Mahanand Rathi, a BJP leader from Jalore in southeast Rajasthan.

The Congress may be in tacit agreement, though in Jaipur and parts of north Rajasthan, onions are an important ingredient in the diet. "Price rise is one of the major issues in this election," Damodar Thanvi, in charge of the Congress election in Rajasthan, told Rediff On The NeT, "and the poor people are completely with the Congress on this aspect."

However, the Congress, in its manifesto released on Sunday, has focused on other issues such as the lack of development in the state besides price rise.

"All the major development programmes and initiatives were undertaken by the previous Congress government. The BJP in its last 8 years has done nothing," claimed Thanvi.

The BJP has, of course, not taken the charge lying down. "Utter nonsense!" thundered Bhargava, "We have in the last eight years spent more than twice what the Congress spent in the 40 years of its rule."

The Congress concedes the point, but claims the money its governments spent was on quality projects such as irrigation, dams, canals. "The BJP has spent all its money in non-plan expenditure, in paying salaries. We are sure that on this issue, the people are with us."

The Congress is also working on the anti-incumbency factor. Various opinion polls so far put the Congress ahead of the BJP in Rajasthan, and the Congress is clearly banking on that. "It is clear there is just general disenchantment with the BJP after all these years. It is not over this or that but over a range of issues," claimed Thanvi. He was confident that the Congress would sweep the poll.

To counter the perceived anti-incumbency factor, the BJP is banking on the fact that in about a hundred constituencies (out of a total 200 constituencies), rebel candidates from within the Congress ranks are standing as Independents. These candidates might hurt Congress chances.

At least, the BJP is seriously hoping so.

"The Congress rebels have assumed a serious proportion, so much so that in some constituencies, they are our main rivals instead of the official Congress candidates. And even if they eat up just about 5,000 votes or so, it will make a major dent in the Congress hopes of forming the government," said Rajinder Singh Kaushal, state BJP president.

The BJP hopes stems from the facts that in this year's general election, in which the Congress won 18 seats to the BJP's 5, the latter lost in 46 assembly constituencies by margins of 5,000 votes or less. The BJP clearly is hoping that the loss of this 5,000 votes or more votes to rebel Congress candidates will see its men through.

The Congress in on the defensive. "People vote for the party, not for the candidate. In fact, the people have now realised that it is these Independents and small parties who create unstable governments and will not vote for them," said Thanvi.

Another factor in the poll is the leadership issue. The Congress suffers from a plethora of aspirants, but no clear leader at the state level. For the BJP, the reverse is true: there is only one leader -- Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.

Shekhawat is considered a shrewd manipulator. "If a neck and neck situation emerges, Shekhawat will pull it off," said an observer of Rajasthan politics "Hence, the Congress will have to get a clear lead over the BJP."

The Congress has not yet declared its leader, saying the new MLAs will elect their new leader.

Meanwhile, Jaipur city seems rather quiet. The countryside is where the action is. As the bus whizzed down from Delhi to Jaipur, the villages on the way provided the colour and the noise.

Decorated jeeps, festoons, buntings, and people carrying flags declaring their allegiance, were to seen in large numbers. Jaipur, by contrast, seemed blase about E-day.

One reason is that Jaipur city is a BJP bastion and for this reason, both the BJP and the Congress aren't trying too hard. "We hope to make a dent in the BJP's vote this time," declared Thanvi rather hopefully. Bhargava exuded confidence. "Jaipur is with us, and so is Rajasthan," he said.

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