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October 5, 1999


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Elections saw the best of times, the worst of times

The millennium's last and month-long torturous elections to the 543-member Lok Sabha were marked by contrasting trends -- a high-tech and low-level smear campaign, violence in some parts and peace in most others, a dry spell in Gujarat and floods in Bihar, West Bengal and parts of Madhya Pradesh.

Polling will be held on October 28 in four flood-affected constituencies of Bihar -- Purnia, Bhagalpur, Rajmahal and Khagaria -- and in Dhubri constituency of Assam where it was postponed because of the killing of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Pannalal Oswal by suspected United Liberation Front of Asom militants.

Assembly elections in five states -- Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim -- were also held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls. Though these elections were held so soon after the 1998 democratic exercise, the percentage of voting is expected to be about 60, marginally less than 61.97 in 1998, according to the Election Commission. The number of voters was 620 million.

A heartening feature of the recent elections was that the number of independent candidates continued to be small, though there was a small rise from the 1998 figure of 1,915 to 1,968 this time. In 1996, the number of independents was as high as 10,633.

All major players in the election drama used a new weapon to influence the electorate -- the Internet. They maintained contact with their sophisticated voters via websites.

As many as 4,647 candidates were in the fray, but the main contenders for power were the 24-party National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP, and the Congress which had a seat adjustment with some anti-BJP parties, more importantly in Tamil Nadu and Bihar.

Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, which had assembly elections, also witnessed a direct confrontation between the NDA and the Congress, though in Maharashtra Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party has caused some political uncertainty.

The assembly election results of the three states would be greatly significant for the future of national politics as all three are ruled by NDA parties. Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh -- the other two states where assembly elections were held -- are politically marginal in the national arena. The BJP contested 340 Lok Sabha seats and the Congress 452.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the main campaigner for the NDA and Sonia Gandhi for the Congress. She was helped by her daughter Priyanka Vadra and son Rahul.

The peculiar feature of the 13th Lok Sabha election was that it was more personality-specific than policy-oriented and seemed to assume the characteristics of a presidential election. NDA leaders harped on Vajpayee's success as prime minister in giving a bloody nose to Pakistan in Kargil and driving the intruders out. As Sonia Gandhi's leadership was the main challenge to the BJP's return to power, she became the target of attack.

While senior NDA leaders made personalised attacks and innuendoes against Sonia Gandhi and harped on her foreign origin and lack of educational and administrative experience, Vajpayee called her a ''security threat.'' As a tit for tat, she alluded to Vajpayee's role in 1942 when she alleged that he caused the arrest of freedom-fighters.

Her foot soldiers did not refrain from making comments about the premier's personal life. Both parties engaged advertising gurus to prepare material for newspapers and catchlines for television shows and also to advise on the dress their leaders should don.

An unusual feature of the elections was floods in some states. Chief Election Commissioner M S Gill was surprised at the heavy rain at this time of the year in Bihar, West Bengal and parts of Madhya Pradesh. Campaigning was hampered in some areas because of rain and several leaders, including Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi, had to cancel election meetings. Voters went to cast their ballots in knee-deep water and polling booths were set up on boats. Even elephants were used for the conveyance of polling parties and some polling personnel and ballot boxes were airlifted by helicopters.

The main ordeal through which some political parties and candidates had to go through in some areas was violence such as in Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Tripura. In Kashmir, militants terrorised voters to such an extent that they preferred to stay home except some bravehearts who gave a semblance of elections in the Valley.

Eight people, including two ITBP men, were killed in Baramulla in the third phase of elections on September 18. On the same day in Bihar, which bore the brunt of violence, 40 people, mainly security personnel, were killed in Palamau, Hazaribad and Rohtas districts in a series of landmine blasts set off by suspected Naxalite groups who had given a poll boycott call.

On September 25, five people were killed in poll violence, all in Bihar. The last phase on October 3 saw violence in the north-east, with 14 deaths reported from Tripura and Assam.

The first phase on September 5 claimed five lives -- all in Cuddapah district of Andhra Pradesh.

The second phase on September 11 was peaceful and almost incident free. Elections in Narasaraopet in Andhra Pradesh and Anantnag in Jammu and Kashmir were postponed because of the killing of two candidates there. The people of Mohana village in Lucknow constituency, however, demonstrated that Gandhian non-violence and non-cooperation is more effective in making a point. No villager voted in protest against non-development of their area.

The BJP forged alliances more meticulously this time than in 1998 when it had to look for support outside its alliance for forming the government. It, however, did not find difficulty in wooing Telugu Desam Party leader and chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu. It is a different story that J Jayalalitha, leader of the AIADMK, one of its alliance partners, kept Vajpayee on tenterhooks for some time after President K R Narayanan invited them to form the government. The BJP had hitched its wagon with dominant regional parties in some states. It had partnership of equality in some others and had accommodated smaller parties where it dominated.

In the first category came the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's six-party front in Tamil Nadu, TDP in Andhra Pradesh, Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana.

In the second were the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, Janata Dal-United in Karnataka and Bihar (George Fernandes's Samata Party and Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti are now part of it) and the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa.

In the third category were Sukh Ram's Himachal Vikas Party, Loktantrik Congress Party, JBSP in Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim Democratic Front in Sikkim, Anand Mohan's BPP in Bihar and MPCC in Manipur.

The congress had seat adjustments with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and contested only 14 of the 39 seats from there, and with Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar where it was allotted 14 of the 54 seats, ten of which where in South Bihar's Jharkhand region. It, however, contested two more seats outside this arrangement.

Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal contested eight seats in Uttar Pradesh and the understanding is that it will merge with the Congress after the polls. The Congress could retain its electoral understanding with only two factions of the Republican Party of India in Maharashtra, one led by R S Gawai and the other by Ambedkar.

In Kerala, its seat adjustment with the Muslim League and Kerala Congress-Mani is part of the continuing understanding with them in the United Democratic Front. It left one seat for the CPI in Punjab and had an indirect arrangement with the CPI-M in Tamil Nadu, which is part of the AIADMK front.

The third front could not be formed. The Communists front comprising the CPI-M, CPI, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party remained intact, and it tried to expand by having seat adjustments with some dominant state parties. The two Communist parties had seat adjustments with the AIADMK-led front in Tamil Nadu, but they took different paths in Bihar where the CPI-M was with the RJD as it was satisfied with the two seats offered to it. The CPI fought a lonely battle as it did not accept the three seats offered by Yadav and decided to contest nine seats.

The CPI had a seat arrangement with the Congress in Punjab. The Janata Dal-Secular led by H D Deve Gowda had seat adjustments with some small parties. Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav fought in Uttar Pradash, his base, with his back to the wall.


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