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The writing on the poll wall

April 14, 2004

There is just one month to go. I am writing this on the evening of April 13; exactly one month from today we will know almost all the results of the fourteenth general election. The curtain will thus go down on the process of voting which would have begun on April 20 when the first constituencies begin to punch the buttons.

Two weeks ago I wrote about five geographically contiguous states which elect 200 members of Parliament between them. The question I asked was whether the Congress (I) could win at least 30 seats. And if it could not, would the party succeed in reaching the triple figure mark (leave alone get the 112 seats it won in 1999)?

In my opinion, it did not -- and still does not -- bode well for the Congress (I).

(Speaking of opinions, I am relieved that the attorney general has shut down the parties' call to ban opinion polls. It never made sense to me; what is the rationale in giving me a forum to express my opinion while banning thousands of non-journalist, non-politician Indian voters from expressing their opinion when collected in a scientific manner?)

Coming back to the general election, I do not want to revisit the five states I wrote about a fortnight ago. This week, I want to focus on three other contiguous states -- Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. They elect 130 members of Parliament between them. (Here, I am counting Pondicherry as part of the Tamil Nadu sphere of influence.) The pre-poll scenario in all three differs significantly from that in 1999.

The 48 seats in Maharashtra witnessed three-cornered contests in 1999, with the Congress (I), Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party, and the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance battling it out everywhere. Had the first two joined hands, they would have won -- judging by the votes cast -- 38 seats. But by cutting into each others votes, they won, as I recall, just 16 seats. This time, common sense has prevailed -- or, as the Nationalist Congress Party would say, the Congress has come off its high horse; this means that the Shiv Sena-BJP team is fighting against a united Congress (I)-Nationalist Congress Party-Republican Party alliance.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the BJP and the Telugu Desam had an alliance in 1999. The Congress (I) was reduced to a handful of seats, with the victorious alliance garnering over 50 percent of the votes cast in constituency after constituency. This time, the Congress (I) has tried to make amends; it has sought out an ally of its own -- the Telengana Rashtra Samiti.

Coupled with the usual anti-incumbency factor, this should serve to boost the Congress (I)'s chances in Andhra Pradesh. (It can hardly do worse than in 1999!)

Moving ever southward, the 2004 polls are a neat mirror image of those in 1999 where Tamil Nadu is concerned. Then, the BJP was part of a large coalition led by the DMK while the Congress (I) was hand-in-glove with Jayalalithaa. The two national parties have now switched sides, which, again, should potentially benefit Sonia Gandhi Pvt Ltd.

The logic of electoral arithmetic suggests that these are the three states where the Congress (I) should do substantially better than in 1999, the three that could make up for any disappointing performance elsewhere, propelling the party over the three figure mark. Is this reading correct?

I was surprised to see opinion polls suggesting that the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance shall do almost as well in 2004 as in 1999. But most pollsters seem to agree that there has been a swing in favour of the National Democratic Alliance partners; a poll sponsored by Sharad Pawar suggests that there has been a 6 percent swing in favour of the Shiv Sena-BJP, enough to offset the advantage given by the understanding between Sonia Gandhi and the Nationalist Congress Party leader. This, coupled with an anti-incumbent feeling caused by corruption (such as the Telgi Stamp Scam) and mismanagement of drought, means the position in Maharashtra may not change as much as anticipated. Essentially, the two fronts will split the state between them almost evenly.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress (I)'s understanding with the Telengana Rashtra Samiti has led to its own problems. The Telengana Rashtra Samiti's major plant is splitting the state to create a separate Telengana, something that will create a backlash in Rayalseema and Coastal Andhra. In addition, Congressmen think the high command has given far too many seats to the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, thus increasing the threat of dissidence.

Tamil Nadu was the one state where the Congress (I)'s alliance tactics seemed to be paying off. But that was before Rajnikanth threw a spanner in the works by throwing his weight behind the National Democratic Alliance. (It seems he dislikes the PMK -- a constituent of Karunanidhi's front -- more than he dislikes Jayalalithaa!) With memories of his fateful intervention in 1996 still fresh in everyone's mind, this has made Congress candidates just a tad more jittery.

I continue to believe that the Congress (I) and its allies shall do better than the opinion polls suggest. But does Sonia Gandhi appreciate the irony of the situation? Her political fate now lies in the hands of two men -- Sharad Pawar and Karunanidhi. The first is a man expelled from the Congress (I) for opposing her leadership; the second is the leader of the party whose presence led the Congress (I) to withdraw support from the United Front ministry in 1997. Would anyone care to guarantee that Pawar and Karunanidhi will back Sonia Gandhi's bid for the prime minister's chair?

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T V R Shenoy

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