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September 10, 1999
T V R Shenoy
Bellary's shadow looms over Amethi
The battle of Bellary is over. Attention now turns northwards -- to Amethi. But the funny thing is that the voters of this prestigious Lok Sabha seat in rural Uttar Pradesh have absolutely no idea who the contestants are.
The Election Commission issued the notification for Amethi on the seventh of September (two days after Bellary had voted). The last date for nominations is the fourteenth, and the poll date itself is as late as the third of October. (Now you know why the results in Bellary and several others won't come out for a month -- counting doesn't begin until every Lok Sabha constituency has voted.)
Every political party has taken advantage of this schedule to keep its cards hidden as long as possible. The BJP will probably renominate the sitting member of Parliament -- Sanjay Singh. The Congress has said Sonia Gandhi will reclaim Rajiv Gandhi's old constituency, but after the Cudappah-Bellary evasion and deliberate lies, nobody believes the party spokesmen any longer. Assuming the two larger contenders stick to the obvious candidates, that still leaves two other groups -- the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
In the context of Uttar Pradesh Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati loom larger than Sonia Gandhi. In 1996, the Congress candidate, Satish Sharma, scraped through in a tight contest because he was aided by the Samajwadi Party boss; in 1998, when such support was lacking, he lost. Today, Mulayam Singh Yadav is totally unwilling to have any truck with Sonia Gandhi. I understand negotiations are on to persuade the Bahujan Samaj Party to put up nothing more than a token fight; but in the event Mayawati agrees to lie low in Amethi she will drive a hard bargain elsewhere.
Why has Amethi suddenly become something for the Congress to worry about? (Personally, I would rate Amethi a far safer seat than Bellary if Sonia Gandhi stands.) First, the shadow of Bellary has been cast on Amethi. Second, the knives are being sharpened for Sonia Gandhi by her enemies within the Congress itself. Let me explain.
I was in Bellary as campaigning came to a close. Opinion is so sharply divided between Sushma Swaraj and Sonia Gandhi that it is impossible to confidently declare a winner. In 1998, K C Kondaiah beat the BJP-Lok Shakti's N C Thippanna by 63,738 votes. Eighteen months later, no independent observer is willing to say the Congress will keep the seat. As far as I could tell, the margin of victory is unlikely to be anything like that of Kondaiah; no matter who wins, Sushma Swaraj or Sonia Maino Gandhi, roughly 30,000 is the most probable figure.
A close fight in Bellary means the Congress can't take chances with Amethi. The BJP pulled off a spectacular coup in 1998 when Sanjay Singh wrested this Congress bastion. But the margin was a relatively narrow 23,270 votes. Equally relevant, the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate polled over 151,096 votes -- which, of course, is why Sonia Gandhi is wooing Mayawati.
But what happens if the Bahujan Samaj Party refuses to play along, or if Mayawati's price for cooperation is too high? Or if Mulayam Singh Yadav -- whose man got 29,888 votes in 1998 -- chooses to put up a stiff fight? (I am told he is considering someone called Fauji, who could draw Muslim votes.) Nor should Sanjay Singh, a scion of the Amethi royal family, be underestimated; he was a formidable opponent even when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister!
Whatever happens, Sonia Gandhi will be forced to spend more time in Amethi than she had calculated. Can she afford to do so when pre-poll surveys speak of the Congress registering its worst performance ever?
The magic number for the BJP-led alliance is 272 -- a simple majority in the Lok Sabha. But Sonia Gandhi is aiming lower -- she needs get to more than 140-odd, which is what the Congress achieved in 1996 and 1998. Those general elections were fought by the party under the leadership of Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri respectively; we all know how the party treated them later. Why should Sonia Gandhi expect any kindlier treatment.
In Delhi, it is already being said the Sitaram Kesri and Narasimha Rao groups are in touch with each other to pull down Sonia Gandhi after the poll results come out. (That means they anticipate a hammering for the Congress.) We have already seen three prime ministers in three years. Is it possible that we shall also see three Congress presidents in three years?)
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