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November 23, 1998


Campaign ends, countdown begins

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George Iype in New Delhi

Campaigning for the assembly election for Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan ended at a feverish pitch on Monday.

More than 80 million voters will decide the fortunes of over 5,000 candidates, including four chief ministers, across 626 seats.

Though the nearly month-old election campaign was by and large peaceful, the murder of a Samata Party candidate in Delhi earlier this month saw relations between the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies at the Centre getting further strained.

While the spiralling prices of vegetables and other essential items was the key issue during the campaign, the fate of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government is seen to be linked to the outcome of the assembly election.

Political analysts believe the poll is the first real test of survival for Vajpayee, who has weathered storms created by belligerent allies like the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Akali Dal in the past eight months.

Interestingly, though the BJP leadership hoped to capitalise on the Pokhran nuclear tests in the election, it turned out to be a non-issue much to the chagrin of the ruling party.

Candidates of the two principal parties -- the BJP and the Congress -- perceive the real threat to them in the election from the large number of rebels in the fray. "The rebel factor can make or mar our chances in Delhi, despite a wave in our favour," confided a local Congress leader. "But we hope to win with a narrow minority thanks mainly to the rise in onion prices."

In Delhi, the ruling BJP faces an angry electorate because of the skyrocketing onion prices coupled with the infighting between party veterans Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma. Chief Minister Sushma Swaraj's single biggest challenge was to unite the warring factions, and opinion polls have predicted serious setbacks for the party.

But the Congress, under the leadership of Shiela Dixit, has failed to cash in on the anti-BJP mood in the capital, thanks to the large number of rebels in the fray, and also the party's failure to take the crucial Sikh community into confidence.

In Rajasthan, the rebel phenomenon has been particularly acute for both the BJP and Congress. For the Congress, which is seen to be riding the crest of victory in the state, what has made the election easy is the anti-incumbency factor.

Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has been the most charismatic leader in Rajasthan for many years now. But BJP leaders now admit he is to be blamed if the party suffers a setback in the election. "If we lose Rajasthan, it will not be because of the popularity of the Congress in the state. The real reason will be the mismanagement of the state, both by the government and the party leadership," a BJP official at the central office in Delhi told Rediff On The NeT.

While some BJP leaders may be getting ready to move over to the Opposition benches in Rajasthan, what haunts the Congress is the high degree of complacency among its leaders about victory, and also the party's failure to project a chief ministerial candidate in the state.

Many believe the real problem for the Congress in Rajasthan will begin only after the election, since there are at least half-a-dozen aspirants like Nawal Kishore Sharma, K Natwar Singh, Shiv Charan Mathur, Parasram Maderna and Ashok Gehlot for the chief minister's post.

In Madhya Pradesh, where the campaign has been rather lacklustre, the election is being fought on price rise and corruption. While the latter issue could cost Chief Minister Digvijay Singh his chair, the BJP's decision to field a number of candidates with dubious links as well as the right connections (relatives of party leaders) could considerably upset its calculations.

Both the BJP and Congress could also pay dearly for the faulty distribution of tickets in MP. While the BJP ignored a number of backward leaders in the state, the Congress decision to field seven Brahmin candidates in a tribal belt around Raipur has not gone down well with the electorate there.

In Mizoram, the single most important factor this election has been the church. The electorate is largely expected to vote according to the church's guidelines. Ninetyeight per cent of the state's 700,000 population are Christians. The Congress, which has ruled the state for the last ten years, is expected to retain power. The BJP has hardly made inroads into the tribal state.

As the ban on meetings and rallies went into force, Prime Minister Vajpayee and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the star campaigners, ended their whistle-stop tours by addressing rallies in Delhi.

Sonia, along with Dixit and other top Congress leaders, addressed a huge meeting at Bholanath Nagar in the trans-Yamuna region where one-third of Delhi's electorate lives.

Not to be left behind, Vajpayee addressed three public meetings in the city -- Pitampura, Chandni Chowk and in the trans-Yamuna area in an effort to retain the BJP's turf in the capital.

Assembly Election '98

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