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September 4, 1999


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Seshan, Advani battle without rancour

Amberish K Diwanji in Gandhinagar

As chief election commissioner a few years ago, T N Seshan struck terror among the politicians of India. Now, he has joined their ranks. And as a Congress candidate for the Lok Sabha election, he is pitted against Union Home Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart Lal Kishenchand Advani in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat. Certainly not the easiest of battles, but one which Seshan has plunged into with his dogged combativeness.

The first thing that hits the eye is the sartorial makeover. Gone are the regular bureaucratic uniform of safari suit or bush shirt and trousers. Now, it is the usual kurta-lehnga and a snazzy cap with the Congress colours.

Seshan has slipped into his new role with the ease of a chameleon changing colours. If he is daunted by the prospect of facing Advani, arguably the second most important person in the BJP, he does not betray it.

But a daunting prospect it is. In 1998, Advani won the Gandhinagar seat that has an electorate of 1.3 million (though only 50 per cent voted) by the huge margin of 276,000 votes. For Seshan to convert even half of those Advani voters to stand a realistic chance even in theory appears difficult. And the disorganisation within the Congress is not exactly helping Seshan, though he is battling on gamely.

But the very fact that Advani felt it necessary to bring Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the National Democratic Alliance's greatest selling point, to speak at a rally in Gandhinagar is seen as proof that the BJP is worried. "Advani needed Vajpayee to retain his seat," gloats a Congress worker.

On Thursday night, Vajpayee addressed a rally in Gandhinagar, exhorting the people to re-elect his government with a decisive mandate. But while BJP workers insist that Vajpayee was called to Gandhinagar because it would have been unfair to exclude Gujarat, Seshan can draw some satisfaction from having scared Advani.

In the campaign, Seshan has picked on the weaknesses of both Advani and the state BJP government. The former is seen as being distant, the latter as a failure. Two issues are dominant: the lack of water and Advani's inaccessibility to the local people.

"For the first time in Gandhinagar's history, people do not have water. The tanker comes once a day and the water given is barely sufficient for a few hours. What has the BJP done about it?" asked an agitated resident of the capital outside the state secretariat.

If the water situation in Gandhinagar is bad, in the villages it is worse. Water tankers come across once a week to dole out rations to the villagers, but the rations barely suffice for a couple of days. "On the other days, we have to walk to a village water tank that is miles away. And no one from the government has even come to us to find out what is wrong and to do something," said a Pratiya village resident.

Seshan is canvassing on a small scale. His car is accompanied by one jeep carrying posters and a microphone announcing his candidature and another car carrying local Congress leaders. It is these local politicians, chief among them being Gandhinagar's former representative in the state legislative assembly, Kasimbhai, who introduce Seshan to the people.

"Seshan has promised to stay in Gandhinagar if he is elected and help you solve all your problems," says Kasimbhai in Gujarati. The small crowd of 20 or so applauds.

Then Seshan takes the microphone. Years ago, as chief election commissioner, Seshan had acquired a reputation for bombastic speeches, "I have politicians for breakfast!" being one of the better known dialogues. This time, he speaks softly and sounds more genuine. "I have been touring the villages. I know your problems. As an MP, I'll be entitled to Rs 1 crore [10 million], which is more than enough to build wells and roads and schools in your village and all the other villages in this constituency. And I will stay in Gandhinagar so that you people can meet me whenever you have a problem," he promises.

The aspect of staying in Gandhinagar is a direct challenge to Advani who is never seen in the constituency save at election time. This has fuelled resentment among many Gandhinagarites, who say they have no one to complain to about their problems. The state BJP government is, incidentally, seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

Said a Congress worker, Popat Patel: "Advani is never in Gandhinagar. And if he is here on a short visit, it is impossible to meet him. All his security guards won't even let us get near him. How then will he know our problems? The people now feel it is better to have a local person who raises our problems in Parliament rather than someone who is too busy with his ministerial responsibilities."

Seshan's short and simple speech goes down well with the people. Instead of huge rallies, Seshan is going from small village to small village, addressing groups of 20-odd people, establishing direct contact with them. He tells them that having worked in the bureaucracy for 36 years, he is aware of their problems and knows how to tackle them.

Then it is a short drive to another village. Same routine. The men seat themselves on the ground in front of Seshan and the local politicians, who sit on chairs. The same stress. Water, accessibility, development. Everywhere, the people respond warmly.

Seshan claims that he will win, no doubts about that! His colleagues in the Congress offer plausible reasons. "Advani got Rs 2 crore for Gandhinagar over the past two years, and Rs 790,000 lapsed for non-usage. Could not that money have been used for the undeveloped areas of Gandhinagar?" argued Patel. "It shows his lack of concern for Gandhinagar."

The Congress workers insist that the antipathy of the people of Gujarat for the state government for its all-round failure will hurt Advani. "This government has shut down state departments rendering people unemployed, there is no water in the capital and all of Gujarat, electricity comes for four hours or less, and worse, state transport buses ticket prices have shot through the roof. The people won't forgive the BJP for all this," said Patel.

The divide between Advani's and Seshan's campaigns is clear. Advani only dwells on national issues - Kargil, Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin, Jayalalitha and her devious ways, the Congress, et al - which are all considered the BJP's plus points. Seshan, on the other hand, concentrates on local issues, seen as the BJP's Achilles heel.

In the villages where Seshan has been campaigning, the villagers insist they will vote for the Congress. These are the villages dominated by the backward classes, all Congress supporters. Seshan's campaign managers have decided that it is better to concentrate on the pro-Congress villages and convince them to make the effort to come out and vote on September 5 rather than waste time preaching to the BJP supporters.

At Village Jethipura, water is not a problem. Water is leaking from a series of taps. "The municipal authorities never visit the village to repair the tap and save this precious water," says Ahmed Jetha, a Congress worker from the village.

Jetha later admits that winning now might be difficult. "Believe me, if elections had been held a year later, Seshan would have won. Right now, still not sufficient people are disillusioned with the BJP to give us a victory," he said.

But he was confident that Advani would not win with the same margin. "Too many people all over Gandhinagar are too upset with the BJP to vote for him. Especially in Gandhinagar City, Advani will surely lose because the people are very angry with the BJP. It is the villages that will save him."

Meanwhile, Gandhinagar must be the city where the Model Code of Conduct, first implemented by none other than Seshan in 1996, is followed to the dot. And both candidates have not allowed the standard of debate to sink.

When a local TV station met Advani, he declared that he would not make any statement on Seshan but would speak about the Congress. And Seshan has not spoken an ill-word about his opponent even as he targets the government's failures. The former chief election commissioner is also keeping a strict watch on his election expenditure.

If only for their decency, Gandhinagar is a great battle!

Click here for an interview with T N Seshan

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