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Why Sonia wants to have the last word

April 28, 2004

Once upon a time it was said that the voters of Uttar Pradesh would decide who ruled India. Today, that same electorate is so bitterly divided that Uttar Pradesh is more like a chunk of three or four small states rather than one giant province.

So, if it isn't Uttar Pradesh (generally along with its neighbour Bihar) which has the decisive voice, who does?

Parochialism aside -- since I hail from that part of the country -- I think it will be South India that will decide whether any formation gets a majority. And when I speak of the South, I am definitely including Maharashtra and Goa. (They belong to the ancient Deccan -- a corruption of the Sanskrit 'Dakshin' -- and their inclusion in Western India is a post-Partition convention.)

Two of those states -- Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh --have already spoken. And even the mere rumour of what those voters have said has been enough to give the markets their worst jitters in three years.

If the pollsters are correct in that Andhra Pradesh has rejected Chandrababu Naidu, the worst is yet to come. Because it means that no front can hope to get a comfortable majority in the 14th Lok Sabha, in turn meaning looking for 'outside support' from parties that reject economic liberalisation.

Surprisingly, there were some smiling faces to be seen at BJP headquarters even after the first exit poll results started coming out on the evening of April 26. There were a few optimists who remained cheerfully convinced that the pollsters had got it wrong. ("Remember Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh last December?" was their constant refrain.)

But most of the smiling faces came from the Karnataka and Kerala camps. There is no need to explain why BJP men from the former should have been happy, but I was bewildered to notice the reaction of the people from Kerala.

The truth is that you have to be a bit of a permanent optimist if you happen to belong to the BJP while also being a resident of Kerala. The party has never succeeded in winning any election or by-election to the Lok Sabha in a quarter of a century. (Nor did its parent, the Jan Sangh.) In fact, the party has always fallen below the 10 percent mark when it comes to winning votes in Kerala. Choosing to join the BJP in a state polarised between the Congress and the CPI-M camps therefore requires a level of blind hope that beggars belief!

The latest reason for the BJP's Kerala unit to celebrate is because of its 'success' in forcing Sonia Gandhi to postpone her plan to celebrate Labour Day in Kerala. This, the BJP gleefully claims, is a sign of the Congress president's nervousness.

How so? Because L K Advani will be touring the state on May 4, and this has reportedly led to Sonia Gandhi deciding to stage her show only on May 6 so that she can get in the last word.

In the past, the BJP unit states, no Congressman cared too much one way or the other if any BJP leader visited Kerala. It is a tribute, they say, to the BJP's growing strength even in the deep South that Sonia Gandhi herself would take such care to rearrange her own schedule. Of such small victories are BJP rejoicings made in Kerala!

Some opinion polls indicate that the BJP's share of the total vote could be as high as 12 percent. (There are no exit polls as I write as Kerala hasn't yet voted.) This would not be high enough to give the BJP any seats -- except in the highly unlikely circumstance that all those votes are concentrated in a single constituency -- but the figure is enough to enable the party to play the spoiler everywhere. Kerala, after all, is a state where the margin of victory can be as little as a single percentage point.

Twelve percent, meaning roughly one out of every eight voters, is actually quite a significant figure in Kerala's context. I am not sure if any parties other than the Congress and the CPI-M can boast of a figure that is any higher. If the BJP succeeds in drawing a chunk of votes away from the Congress, it could mean more seats for the Left. That would make no difference in the Lok Sabha since the Marxists have already expressed their preference for a Congress prime minister, but it is an unhealthy portent for the Congress.

There is a small tremor in the Leftist camp too. It is a little known fact that the Marxists actually depend on the Hindus of Kerala for their support. The Christians and the Muslims who constitute about 45 percent of the electorate generally support the small communal parties in the Congress-led United Democratic Front. What happens if Hindu voters start switching to the BJP?

Another Marxist fear is that many Congressmen could become disenchanted at the thought of supporting, or being supported by, the Left, and turn to the BJP in desperation. (Why not? Isn't that precisely what happened in West Bengal, leading to the formation of the Trinamool Congress?)

Knowing my home state as I do, I reserve the right to be suspicious about these hopes. Kerala is indeed virgin territory for the BJP, and could be an area for growth in the future. But in the present context, I find it very hard to believe that the projected losses in Andhra Pradesh could possibly be made up in Kerala. But in a Lok Sabha where a single MP could tilt the balance, you can't blame the BJP for straining every nerve to win a seat from Kerala!

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T V R Shenoy

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