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The Rediff Special/Dr N Bhaskara Rao

'The fate of the Congress appears to be sealed'

What issues will dominate the next election? Who will win? Who will lose? Will there be a wave? Will the party system become extinct? Dr N Bhaskara Rao, one of India's leading psephologists, predicts what route the coming campaign is likely to take.

Elections, in India, are "over to the people" time. And it is probably the one time in their lives when politicians, and political parties, of all hues walk the razor edge of panic.

During their tenure, the elected representatives of the people walk with the gods. And it is only when an election is announced that they realise it is the people in their constituencies, with whom they have not really bothered to keep in touch, who will decide their fate.

It is not a happy thought.

Being out of touch also means that just when they need it most, politicians realise that they have no clue about the beating of the mass pulse, no idea what concerns move the voters and what does not. And that is when they make a beeline for the opinion pollsters.

Already, I have been approached by a few potential candidates in the forthcoming election to the Lok Sabha, who have asked me to suggest constituencies that, for them, will be "easy". Interestingly, two candidates who approached me mentioned that they were hoping to get a ticket from either the Congress or the BJP, indicating that the party system, with its affiliations and loyalties, could become redundant in this upcoming election.

It is early days yet, but it is still interesting that despite the many problems facing the country, no issue or issues appear to have surfaced in a big way, in the aftermath of the poll announcement. Not even the the much touted electoral reform, or women's representation, appears to have enthused the electorate.

What does that indicate? This -- that the concerns the politicians voice during their tenures as MPs are far removed from the actual concerns that move the people of the country.

In the absence of key issues, the oft-pedalled ones such as secularism continue to be safe bets.

Thus far, the possibility of "negative voting", widely evident in the previous election, is not in sight. Neither does there seem to an any anti-incumbent mindset among the electorate -- which is good news for the United Front, more than any of the other parties, because it indicates that the Jain Commission report is not likely to handicap the UF's poll campaign to any noticeable extent.

If anti-incumbent voting surfaces at all, it is likely to do so only in states like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka and Orissa -- and even there, it is likely to affect the regional parties more than the national ones.

One clear indication however is that Indian democracy is definitely not moving towards the Westminster system, based on the two party format. The proliferation of parties continues apace, each fresh election adding a dozen or more parties to roster. And the consequent combination of parties, alliances and understandings at the national, state and even constituency levels have added new dimensions to the analysis of poll prospects.

Regional parties never had it so good. As in the previous election, so also here, it is the regional parties that will dictate the character, coherence and continuity of national governments in Delhi.

Contrary to general expectations, caste, regionalism, criminalisation and parochial interests continue to sway the nation. Very obviously, the electorate as a mass has not imbibed the philosophy of 'think national, act local' or even 'think big and beyond' -- it is a case, more, of 'think local, act local, and let the national equation take care of itself'.

What follows is a summary of preliminary trends seen in the aftermath of the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha -- and remember, the emphasis is on the word 'preliminary':

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham has emerged, surprisingly, as the beneficiary of the current controversy, cutting across party lines in Tamil Nadu. As a result, the DMK-issue has helped the disparate United Front close ranks at the national level, with the Jain Commission report becoming a rallying point for all UF partners. Interestingly, thus, the Congress has achieved the exact opposite of what it set out to do, when it tried to use the Jain Commission as a club to browbeat the UF with.

G Karuppiah Moopanar and his Tamil Maanila Congress appear to have lost their bearings, and are in trouble unless the alliance with the DMK continues. Without the backing of the regional party, the TMC's future in Tamil Nadu appears very bleak.

The UF's stock, which was on the decline before the latest crisis, has, rather surprisingly, picked up thanks to the Front's "moral and politically correct" stand vis a vis the Congress demand that the DMK be dumped from the government. The perception is that the Front faced political blackmail with a united facade, and came up trumps. However, at this juncture it is too early for us to hazard a guess as to what extent this positive image will be converted into votes.

The BJP, which lost some face after the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat episodes, has marginally improved its overall position -- the main reason being the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor.

The Congress, on the other hand, has lost its direction, its moorings and, with it, much ground. With the UF categorically stating that it will not back the Congress or even have electoral adjustments, the fate of the Congress appears to be sealed. No wonder then that the Congress is now on a desperate hunt for regional allies.

Further, if Sonia Gandhi does not campaign for the Congress, the party will have no star, and individual candidates will be more or less left to their own devices. Should she, however, decide to campaign -- and it must be said that the prospect seems very remote -- she will make a difference. But only marginally, in some pockets.

And with this trend of candidates canvassing on his or her own, the temptation of floor crossing in Parliament will increase, and lead to the further erosion of the party system.

Overall, what is emerging clearly is that no single party is likely to come up with an absolute majority, as and when the 12th Lok Sabha is constituted. Whatever government emerges after the polls will be an alliance, or will depend on support from more than one regional party.

What exactly will the erosion of traditional vote banks do to the major parties? Statistically, for every one per cent of votes lost, the Congress will lose almost 10 seats. The BJP on the other hand will lose only five seats for every one per cent of votes lost.

As for the United Front, it will be a miracle if the unity displayed by the 13 coalition partners during the recent crisis continues after the electoral process starts in early January 1998. If it does indeed stand together, then it holds out hope of a transition in the body politic -- towards the better.

To sum up: If an election was held right now, the likely party positions are as follows:

Congress: 85 to 120 seats

BJP and allies: 195 to 230

The United Front: 155 to 180

Independents & others: 35 to 60

But then, there are many imponderables between now and the election -- including the possible new alliances and the break-up of existing ones, all of which will impact on the final outcome.

Every single time India has gone to the polls, we say the situation is unique and unprecedented. This time, however, is a totally different kettle of political fish. Qualitatively, the upcoming election brings to the fore the decline of the polity, the malice in society and a crisis in credibility of public institutions. Thus, overall, the electoral scene is a "melting pot" scenario, not a "boiling pot" one as before.

As things stand today, six states hold the key to the prospects of the various parties in the coming election -- UP, Bihar, MP, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Together, these states account for well over half the Lok Sabha seats. A sample frame of 38 to 42 constituencies from these states, with a carefully selected sample of 2,200 voters, forms the base for this particular Centre for Media Studies preliminary poll, figures from which I have quoted above.

The Rediff Special

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