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Two seats, one district, one state
February 25, 2003
Several lakh Indians will trudge to the polling booth come February 26. But you wouldn't realise it if you looked only at the headlines; between the World Cup, the Budget, and the looming conflict in Iraq, there is little room for anything else. Any little space that can be spared is used to cover the slanging match between the Congress (I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party in Himachal Pradesh. Or could it be that there is a certain amount of election fatigue after the emotionally draining election in Gujarat?
However, I have a solution for all those who are interested in Indian politics but lack the time to go through a list constituency by constituency. I put it to you that the polls which are truly interesting are two assembly segments, one district, and a state in the Northeast. So, forget the big picture and look only at these pointers to the future.
The first of the Assembly constituencies I would put the spotlight on is Gauriganj in Uttar Pradesh. The second is Satankulam in Tamil Nadu. The district is that of Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. Finally, the state in question is Meghalaya.
Gauriganj is one of those place which 99.99% of Indians would be hard put to identify on a map. Its importance today lies in the fact that it is one of the five assembly segments which make up the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, the family borough of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and currently held by Sonia Gandhi. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, has made this by-election a matter of prestige, almost a litmus test on her administration. This, of course, means that Sonia Gandhi cannot afford to suffer the loss of face if the Congress (I), which won the seat last time, loses the by-election.
Gauriganj, in other words, has become an opinion poll for the major political forces in the country's largest state. For good measure, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party has decided to make a fight of it rather than ally with the Congress (I).
Let us now move across the country to Satankulam. (While Tamil is not my strong point, I understand the name roughly translates to 'the Devil's pond'.) The DMK has chosen to boycott the polls altogether -- a signal to its cadre that it is free to vote for the Congress (I).
Congressmen also hope to take advantage of the fact that 40% of this constituency's voters are Christians. (This is the first electoral test for Jayalalithaa after her controversial anti-conversion legislation.) The fate of the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is not tied up here, but Satankulam could provide some pointers to future trends.
What is the significance of Mandi in Himachal Pradesh politics? For a start, it is the largest district, thus the most politically weighty, in the state. It may also be the biggest political 'market' around, fitting since 'Mandi' means 'mart.' Pandit Sukh Ram, a man who has been in both the Congress (I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party camps at different times, is out to prove a point by demonstrating that he can fight independently of the two main parties. If all goes well for him, 'Mandi' may just live up to its name after the votes are counted...
We come finally to Meghalaya. Sonia Gandhi has a personal axe to grind in this state. It is the home of Purno Sangma, the former Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the man who joined hands with Sharad Pawar to challenge her leadership of the Congress (I) on the grounds of her foreign origin. Sonia Maino Gandhi is out to cut him down to size on his own turf. Meghalaya, I must point out, has historically been a state where the Congress (I) performs well. To what extent, then, can Sangma make a difference?
None of the elections taking place on February 26 will carry the resonance of the Vidhan Sabha polls in Gujarat. Win or lose, neither of the two major parties nor any of their allies shall be shaken to the same extent as they were in December. But spare a thought for the four elections I have named. No, they shall not, individually or collectively, shake the balance of power in the Lok Sabha. But they may just give us a glimpse of what the future holds for us. And do remember that a general election is due next year...