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October 3, 1999


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Lucknow verdict may not thrill Vajpayee

Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow

The fading charisma of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was visible in his political citadel as voters went about raising questions on real issues, on the concluding round of polling today. In one particular pocket, voters expressed their ire against Vajpayee by boycotting the polls entirely.

Even as the polling concluded peacefully, with no untoward incident reported from any of the 31 constituencies, including the hyper-sensitive Amethi, from where Congress president Sonia Gandhi is seeking her maiden entry into Parliament, there was a perceptible change in the attitude of Lucknow's 1.5 million voters, 53 pc of whom actually exercised their franchise.

In many localities in UP's capital city, where the last three elections gave a thumping victory margin to Vajpayee, voters seemed to be no more enamoured of the towering personality of the prime minister. Consequently, the lesser known Congress nominee Karan Singh, who was not even taken seriously, suddenly appeared to be giving Vajpayee a run for his money.

In Mahona, the only rural pocket of the otherwise essentially urban constituency, total boycott was observed at one of the three polling centres. "There are about 1400 voters listed here and not one came to vote until 3 pm," admitted an official. However, voters exercised their franchise openly in favour of the Congress at the other three polling centres, even though the turnout was stated to be poor.

Local residents complained, "Vajpayee's entire concentration has been on the beautification of Lucknow city, on which hundreds of crores have been spent, while we are starved of drinking water and the bare minimum power supply."

Some complained of the "pot-holed roads and neglected drainage and sanitation systems."

But that was not the case with Mahona alone. Back in the lanes and bylanes of the Walled City, men, women -- young and old -- made no bones about their disillusionment with the prime minister. "Yes, I voted for Vajpayee both in 1996 as well as in 1998, but what has he done now -- even if you take a telephone connection, you have to file an income tax return; you own a 900 sq feet house you are questioned by income tax authorities; is it justified?" asked Chandra Prakash, a retired government employee.

Dinesh, who still served in the UP government was equally sore with the Vajpayee government for prescribing such low standards to cover ordinary people in the IT net. "They make friends with industrialists and affluent people, who go scot-free after all types of evasion -- but we ordinary, salaried people have to make rounds of income tax offices", he moaned.

There were still others who complained of the government's complacence in taking stringent action against scores of finance companies which made good their escape after duping lakhs of people of their humble savings.

"Every time Vajpayeeji came to Lucknow, he issued press statements that the government was going to bring in a law to fix these fraud companies, but what did he do", questioned Ram Mohan, another government employee who lost all his superannuation benefits to one such finance company. Sanjeev Misra, an unemployed youth felt the same as he lost his only source of livelihood after the finance company he was employed with simply vanished. He claimed, "There were thousands like me who were on the streets on account of such finance companies closing shop and vanishing into thin air."

What seemed strange was the tilt of such voter towards the Congress. Thus, apart from Muslims who had come out openly in favour of the Congress, there were disgruntled state government employees, industrial workers and even school teachers, who had much to complain against the BJP government's 'indifference' to their genuine grievances.

Muslims, who stand at about 27 per cent of the Lucknow's 1.5 million electorate, were candid about switching their loyalties from Samajwadi Party to the Congress. "We have had enough of Mulayam and today we want to strengthen the hands of the Congress to beat the saffron brigade," remarked Naseer Ullah, a shop-keeper in the Walled City. No wonder, therefore, large number of burqa-clad women as well as bearded men could be seen crowding at the Congress stalls outside most of the polling centres in Old Lucknow.

However, it was also evident that the entire chunk of Muslims would not go over to the Congress. As summed up by an elderly advocate Khwaja Mohamed Raiq, "Had it not been for this division of the Muslim vote, I am sure Vajpayee and the nation would have been in for the surprise of the millennium ."

Thus, even though Vajpayee retains his hardcore saffron vote, the hopes of his poll managers "to ensure a bigger margin for him than his last year's lead of 2.20 lakhs, were likely to get dashed as political pundits do not see him running really far ahead of his otherwise 'pygmy' Congress rival.

While complaints of attempted booth-capturing in Amethi and intimidation of Congress workers by BJP nominee Sanjay Singh had been made by a Congress leader in New Delhi, a decision about repoll in these places could be taken only by the Election Commission, said the state's chief election officer Noor Mohammad.

Reports from Amethi described the turnout of voters as "very high" in the forenoon after which it was stated to be somewhat "sluggish". Women voters seemed to far outnumber the men in the morning. "I would not be surprised if Sonia Gandhi gets a landslide victory," observed Angad Singh, a college lecturer over telephone.

Meanwhile, state authorities, who had been keeping their fingers crossed about a possible outbreak of violence, were seen congratulating each other for the "incident free" poll. Said UP's principal home secretary V K Mittal, "We are happy to have completed the entire poll exercise without a single incident of violence anywhere". He said, "The peaceful conduct of the poll could be assessed from the fact that there was not even a lathi-charge ordered in a single place, even though we had made unprecedented security arrangements at many of the hyper-sensitive places."

He attributed the administration's success to timely and adequate deployment of security forces. In Amethi, where large-scale violence was being apprehended, as many as about 5000 policemen and paramilitary personnel were deployed in addition to nearly 6500 auxilliary force like Home Guards etc. This was more than double the force that was pressed into service in that prestigious constituency in 1998.

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