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Will Karnataka offer pointers to the general election?
T V R Shenoy
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Battleground Karnataka

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May 23, 2008
Do you know your local corporator's name? I must confess that I did not, and couldn't find it even on the Internet. To be honest, I am not quite sure which constituency I am in when voting in the municipal corporation election.

The weird part is that I do try to trudge off to the polling station for every election, which in itself is something of a rarity in my part of Delhi. The apathy is so great that, as far as I remember, my polling station recorded a truly dismal polling percentage, something below 30 per cent last time. And that was in a Lok Sabha election, not even an assembly or municipal corporation poll.

I suspect middle class Delhi's disinterest is shared by its counterparts in other large cities. We know our MPs, but the level of interest falls off rapidly when it comes to our MLAs, and is all but zero when it comes to our representatives in the local body.

Yet the fact remains that these municipal corporations or Panchayats deal with sizeable amounts of public money. I was surprised to read that this runs to hundreds of crores even in West Bengal, not the wealthiest of states.

And if the fact has been lost on us -- the voters -- it has not gone unnoticed by politicians. Every party takes local body polls quite seriously, if only because it offers opportunities for patronage that will pay off in the more glamorous polls.

The results of the Karnataka assembly election will undoubtedly be hogging the headlines by the time you read this. (Or such space at least as the media can spare from cricketers and film stars!) But I put it to you that there are two other sets of political battles going on currently that may prove just as interesting, the local body polls in West Bengal and in Punjab.

The first point to note in both states is that allies are at loggerheads. The second is that both have taken the concept of 'political battles' in the most literal sense, that is they are actually fighting it out.

In Punjab, the Akali Dal and the BJP, the partners in the ruling coalition, are struggling to be polite to each other. Please understand that this is not a newly-forged alliance, they have been friends and allies for decades in a partnership briefly interrupted only during the Bhindranwale period. But the Akali Dal now seems to feel that the BJP is growing too fast for comfort.

The Akali Dal has traditionally depended on the Sikh vote and the rural vote (not necessarily the same thing though they do overlap). The base of the BJP was supposed to be the Hindu vote and the urban vote. In the last assembly polls, however, there was some uneasiness in Akali Dal circles when it transpired that the BJP was winning even some rural seats and some Sikh votes.

Some -- not all -- in the Akali Dal are determined to stop this 'trespassing', and the result has been heated scenes during the Panchayat polls. But both parties are uncomfortably aware that they can go only so far since neither can possibly form a government in Punjab without the other.

That, of course, is not true of West Bengal, where the CPI-M is the unquestioned master of the Left Front. Subhas Naskar of the RSP, a constituent of the Left Front, is West Bengal's irrigation minister; his office proved no protection when the RSP and the CPI-M clashed during the Panchayat polls.

By all accounts, CPI-M workers attacked the minister's ancestral house in Kumrokhali village in the Basanti bloc in southern West Bengal. Gauri Naskar, wife of Subhas Naskar's nephew, suffered 90 per cent burns in the assault; she died after being taken to hospital in Kolkata.

Gauri Naskar was, sadly, only one of several deaths during the local body elections in West Bengal. But the tragedy threw up several interesting points. First, it demonstrates just how low the CPI-M will stoop in its bid to retain power. Second, it shows that the hold of the CPI-M on rural Bengal is beginning to crack. Third, it proves that this loss of popularity is now great enough that even its junior partners in the Left Front have been emboldened enough to pick up a fight.

The RSP shall, it goes without saying, be crushed if it comes to a showdown. Unlike the Akali Dal in Punjab, the CPI-M does not need its assistance to survive in the assembly. But the CPI-M bosses have been constrained to make conciliatory voices, with even Jyoti Basu expressing his astonishment and pain at the violence.

The CPI-M is taking a long-term view of the situation. It was jolted by everything that happened in Singur and in Nandigram [Images], and it fears that these two may signal the start of mass disillusionment in rural West Bengal. And in the form of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress it finally faces an opponent that offers a genuine alternative. (Unlike their counterparts in Kerala [Images], West Bengal's voters were canny enough to realise that the Congress could never afford to take the CPI-M head on.)

The RSP commands a tiny share of votes compared to the CPI-M's legions. But what happens if those voters defect en masse to a front floated by Mamata Banerjee? And what if the other junior partners in the Left Front then choose to defect? You cannot afford to lose their votes just as your rural fortresses are crumbling, can you?

This round of local body elections is, I believe, the first time that the Trinamool Congress has wrested control of even one Zilla Parishad. Caught between the need to industrialise and farmers unwilling to cede their lands, the CPI-M has every reason to fear that it will not be the last local body won by Mamata Banerjee.

Under the circumstances -- and with a Congress getting ready for a general election --this is the wrong time to antagonise the RSP (or any other junior partner).

Some say the Karnataka assembly election will offer pointers to the result of the next general lection. Others disagree with that assessment. Yet everyone concedes that success will depend on forging the most cohesive coalition, and that is why the fallout of the Panchayat polls in West Bengal and Punjab could reverberate as much as the assembly poll in Karnataka.

T V R Shenoy
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