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November 28, 1998


Congress comes out on top, huge setback for BJP

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The Congress is a big winner from the assembly election held earlier this week, according to results and counting trends. And the Bharatiya Janata Party has conceded defeat.

But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said the results pose no threat to his coalition government at the Centre and he will prove his majority when the Lok Sabha convenes for its winter session on Monday, November 30.

Vajpayee called Food Minister Surjeet Singh Barnala, Defence Minister George Fernandes, and Commerce Minister Ramakrishna Hegde for an emergency meeting tonight. He later rushed off to meet President K R Narayanan.

The Congress is heading for an absolute majority in Delhi and Rajasthan while it appears set to return to power in India's largest state, Madhya Pradesh, belying all pre-poll predictions and even the exit poll conducted on Election Day. Only in the north-eastern state of Mizoram has the party tripped.

In Rajasthan, the Congress is heading for a record majority in the 200-member assembly. It has won 119 of the 150 seats declared so far and is leading in 32 others. No party in Rajasthan has ever won more than 145 seats in the assembly.

The BJP, which had been ruling the state for the last eight years, won just 21 seats and is leading in 10 others. Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has already tendered his resignation. Shekhawat, however, won his election in Bali.

In Delhi, the Congress has bagged 11 of the 16 seats declared in the 70-member House, and is leading in 35 others. The BJP has won five and is leading in 12. Chief Minister Sushma Swaraj too has tendered her resignation to Lieutenant Governor Vijai Kapoor. But she won in Hauz Khas, defeating Congress candidate Kiran Walia by 2,615 votes.

Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee president Shiela Dikshit, who is widely tipped to be the next chief minister of the state, won comfortably from the Gole Market constituency, defeating MLA and former Test cricketer Kirti Azad of the BJP by 5,667 votes.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has won 45 of the 80 seats declared and is leading in 122 others. There are 320 seats in the state assembly, which means 161 seats are needed for a simple majority. The BJP has won 29 seats and is leading in 89 others.

Chief Minister Digvijay Singh (Congress) won Raghogarh by a record 54,000 votes; his BJP rival lost his deposit. Former chief minister Sunderlal Patwa of the BJP won his Bhojpur seat, but another former BJP chief minister, Kailash Joshi, has lost in Bagli which he won eight times in a row.

The Congress's winning streak extends to Punjab, where the party has won the Adampur assembly seat for which a bye-election was held.

In Mizoram, however, the Mizo National Front-Mizoram People's Conference alliance is on the verge of getting a simple majority, having bagged 21 seats out of the 27 results declared so far in a House of 40. The Congress, which was ruling the state, has bagged just five seats. Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla has lost the election.

The only consolation for the Bharatiya Janata Party has come from Himachal Pradesh, where its candidate, Dulo Ram, won the by-election to the Baijnath assembly seat. With this, the party's strength in the 68-member House has increased to 34, reducing the party's dependence on former Union minister Sukh Ram's Himachal Vikas Party.

In Gujarat's Broach Lok Sabha seat, the BJP's Mansukh Vasava is leading Iqbal Kakuji Patel of the Congress by over 29,000 votes.

First real test for Sonia Gandhi

Dr Mahesh Rangarajan, the well-known political analyst, says this election should be seen as the first real test for Sonia Gandhi, since this time it was she who led the Congress from the beginning, finalising candidates and deciding strategy.

Another point made, not by politicians but by analysts, was that in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan the Congress and the BJP between them cornered almost 90 per cent of the popular vote -- which means the polity is once more being polarised into a two-party format.

If this trend continues -- and the experts think it will -- regional parties will slowly fade out and the kind of governments we have had at the Centre in the last eight years will change; India will go back to head-to-head contests between two big parties.

While in Rajasthan and Delhi, anti-incumbency is being held up as the major factor, that analysis falls flat in Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress is upsetting every single pre-poll survey and even Doordarshan's exit poll.

One reason for this, the experts said, was that the Congress denied tickets to as many as 77 MLAs, including eight ministers. Therefore, the voter did not need to vent his ire on the party. He got the feeling that those who had performed badly had been punished anyway.

Thus, the Congress is holding on to almost two-thirds of its seats in the outgoing assembly. But the BJP, which had fielded most of its outgoing MLAs, is losing almost half its seats, proving that an anti-establishment factor was at work at the micro-level in Madhya Pradesh.

BJP agrees that price rise proved crucial

In post-election analyses, the BJP has been getting painted into a corner on the question of whether this poll was a referendum on the central government.

Senior party politicians and allies like George Fernandes of the Samata Party insisted an assembly election could not be seen as a referendum on national politics. General secretary M Venkaiah Naidu put on a brave front, saying, "These are state elections, even if we lose all four, it won't make any difference, there will be no political fallout in Delhi."

But when asked to explain the debacle, the BJP politicians unanimously put the price rise down as the foremost factor. This is a central subject -- so then the BJP finds itself saying, in effect, that the elections were affected by a central issue, but the result was not a vote against the Centre.

Pollster Dorab Sopariwala said, "I think the price rise has had an overwhelming impact across the nation. If there is a national election now, the BJP is likely to lose badly. For the BJP, the best bet is to somehow avoid elections for the next 12 months, till the situation is controlled again."

Dr Rangarajan pointed out that when the final results are in, a key question to be analysed would be the behaviour of the minorities and the weaker sections. "Early trends indicate that in areas where these sections are in a majority, the BJP has been trounced, whereas it seems to be managing to retain most of its base in the middle-class regions."

Thus, according to Dr Rangarajan, the point to be analysed is: are the Muslims, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes swinging back to the Congress fold, thus re-consolidating its earlier vote bank?

Coming to the question of a mid-term election, he said: "The results point to a massive erosion of BJP support in the three states. And the gainer has obviously been the Congress."

Congress MP Kamal Nath agreed: "The BJP started out with tremendous goodwill, which they have now lost. What this translates as is that the people are suffering, and unhappy, under the BJP -- and that indicates the need for a change of government, a mid-term poll. The BJP is clearly unviable now."

Kamal Nath admitted that most MPs across the political spectrum do not want another election, "but it is not a question of what the MPs want, more a question of what the situation calls for -- and the situation clearly calls for fresh elections".

But BJP general secretary Narendra Modi argued that when the Narasimha Rao-led Congress government was ruling at the Centre, four big states went to the polls and the Congress lost all four, but that did not affect the central government.

For fresh elections, at least one of the BJP allies has to forsake it, so who will it be? According to Kamal Nath, "The BJP's allies are allies of opportunism. Today, that opportunity is being lost, so with it, the opportunists could move away. So any of the allies could quit the alliance, since the results clearly indicate that the BJP is now on a downslide."

But BJP politician and Rajya Sabha member Pramod Mahajan argued, "I don't see the allies changing their position now. After all, these were assembly elections, consisting of about 73 Lok Sabha seats. It does not reflect on a national level."

According to Mahajan, J Jayalalitha, general secretary of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the biggest of the BJP's allies, not attending the coalition co-ordination committee meeting has nothing to do with the election results because she had announced her decision even before counting began.

Mahajan admitted that losing Madhya Pradesh is a setback, but "we need to analyse the results, and only then can we really pinpoint factors that went against us".

But general secretary Narendra Modi was clear in his mind about at least one factor that went against the BJP -- the frequent quarrels with its allies at the Centre. Modi, who was in charge of the BJP's campaign in Madhya Pradesh, said: "It is time to sit down with our allies and sort out our problems. If this continues, and each day one ally or the other continues to attack the BJP, it can cause us considerable harm."

Additional reportage: UNI

Assembly Election '98

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