Debating India


Enemy At The Gate


Monday 19 April 2004, by CHOUDHARY *Savitri , JOSHI*Poornima , SRINIVASARAJU*Sugata

The Congress messes up in AP and Karnataka. In Orissa, it already had.

Will it be a 3-0 sweep for the NDA in the assembly polls in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa? Naveen Patnaik and the BJD-BJP combine’s victory is seen as a certainty by observers in Bhubaneswar. Alarm bells are ringing for the Congress in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh too-and to think that only a few months ago the party seemed to be at an advantage in both these states. But today the prognosis does not appear that bright.

In Karnataka, the Congress’ worries are getting multiplied by the day. This is perhaps reflected in the party’s billboards which have sprung up across Bangalore. They portray a pensive S.M. Krishna with his hand on his chin-the chief minister looks as if he is concerned about Karnataka’s path of progress. But in a season of thick political calculations it could also be read as a more personal source of tension: wondering about what is in store.

For, drought and anti-incumbency weighing down on him, Krishna is under pressure to perform in the assembly as well as the Lok Sabha polls.

The BJP’s campaign pitch, that Karnataka would be its gateway to the South, has been growing shriller by the day. According to Ananth Kumar, the BJP state president, his party would get a "decisive mandate" in both the Lok Sabha and assembly polls. But elections in Karnataka is not all about the BJP and the Congress, as the Janata Dal (Secular) led by former prime minister Deve Gowda is set to gain some of its lost ground-at least in the Vokkaliga belt of the Old Mysore region. One speculation is: in the event of a hung assembly, the JD(S) could play a crucial roll in bailing out Krishna.

The battle lines are once again drawn along caste factors. Here, the BJP’s pragmatic alliance with the Janata Dal (United), a faction mainly consisting of Ramakrishna Hegde’s supporters, would make a difference in north Karnataka. The state’s northern region is dominated by the Lingayat community (around 15 per cent of the state’s population) and traditionally they have gone with the Janata Dal under Hegde and later with the BJP.

This region accounts for 96 assembly and 12 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats. Besides the Lingayats, the Brahmins across the state and a section of the backward castes are expected to go with the BJP. Former Congress chief minister S. Bangarappa, who is now with the BJP, is the one drumming up the obc support for BJP.

For a state that has always supported secular and socialist politics, this election could be a watershed one with the BJP-JD(U) combine becoming a serious alternative to the Congress. And this has worried some. "If the BJP wins in Karnataka, we better write off India. It did not happen even when the Ayodhya controversy was at its peak," says an iim-Bangalore faculty member.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu wants to extend his run as the state’s longest serving chief minister. However, the CEO of AP Inc is up against several hurdles: anti-incumbency, drought, disgruntled farmers, Naxal threats and dissidence. All this ought to have tipped the scales against him.

Ironically, what has come to his aid is the Opposition-its disarray is once again proving to be Naidu’s biggest plus point. The Congress had its best chance in almost nine years of dislodging the TDP when it successfully forged what was touted as a grand anti-NDA alliance, with the sub-regional Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the Left parties. But dissidence and rebellion have evaporated the initial euphoria after these tie-ups were announced.

The Congress, smarting after its debacle in 1999 and desperate to forge poll alliances, ended up gifting 42 of the 107 assembly and six of the 16 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana to the TRS, despite it being a political greenhorn. In addition, it gave a dozen seats to Left parties.As a result, several Congress ticket aspirants were disappointed, leading to widespread resentment and rebellion. In Telangana alone, there are about 20 Congress dissidents in the electoral fray. But Telangana could still prove Naidu’s Waterloo with the Naxals making it increasingly difficult for the TDP to campaign.

What could work against Naidu is another drought. Twenty-one of the state’s 23 districts have been declared drought-affected. As temperatures rise, water sources are once again drying up, creating severe drinking water shortages and frustrating farmers who already blame Naidu for not doing enough for the agriculture sector.

It also does nothing for Naidu’s image that Andhra Pradesh already has the dubious record for the highest number of farmer suicides in the country. Now, indices in the industrial sector are not encouraging either. Both rural and urban unemployment is rising and the state’s GDP has remained below the national average despite Naidu’s much discussed economic reforms. Meanwhile, the state’s debt burden continues to spiral and touched Rs 54,8321 in the last fiscal.

To counter the anti-incumbency factor, Naidu has chosen 95 new faces and denied tickets to 36 sitting MLAs, including three ministers. This, and the fact that tickets were given to four Congress rebels, sparked unprecedented dissidence within the party. In fact, rebel candidates are proving a major challenge for all the key parties given that the margins that separated candidates in the last elections were wafer-thin.

The eastern state of Orissa is yet another reflection of how the Congress has mastered the art of ruining what appeared to be an advantageous situation. It was an opportunity for the party to make up for its defeat in the 2000 assembly elections when it was reduced to 26 seats in the 147-member House. The cracks that appeared in the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD within a year of the alliance coming to power in 2000 had become deeper in the last four years. Leaders instrumental in creating the Biju Janata Dal-from Nalinikanta Mohanty to Ramakrushna Patnaik, Srikanta Jena and Dilip Ray-were expelled by Naveen on apparently flimsy charges. The resentment was growing among the party cadres.

But instead of letting the prominent BJD rebels float their own outfits and cut into the parent’s voteshare, the Congress chose to roll out the red carpet for them in the face of stiff opposition from its cadres. Trying to accommodate them in the ticket distribution has totally upset Congress’ own balance.

As of now, Naveen Patnaik and the BJD-BJP combine are the clear winners by all accounts. The alliance has succeeded in making corruption during J.B. Patnaik’s regime and Naveen Patnaik’s own clean image a major election issue. The Congress is still quelling dissent while the BJD-BJP’s campaign is well on its way.

Despite this, the PCC chief still sounds optimistic. J.B. Patnaik says the Congress will get between ten to 12 Lok Sabha seats and form a government in the state. "There is strong anti-incumbency. You are welcome to be my guest when we form the government," Patnaik told Outlook. Considering that he lost from Athgarh assembly seat last time by a margin of about 40,000 votes while Naveen Patnaik won from Hinjli by 26,417 votes, such optimism sounds hollow even to his own workers.



Key Highlights

- With close to 30% percent of voters likely to review their voting preference closer to election there is a possibility of late swing.

- Congress support base is declining across all the four regions in the State.

- The Lingayat are consolidating in the favour of BJP where as the Vokaligas are divided between BJP and Congress. While the JD(U) leaders have joined the Congress party the traditional JD(U) voters are voting for BJP and not following the leader.

- BJP efforts for to win Lok Sabha elections are having spill over effect on the its prospects in the Assembly election.

- There is also evidence of certain consolidation of opposition vote against the Congress party. There is some shift in JD(S) votes in favor of the BJP.

- The Congress by and large has given tickets to old candidates this has added to the problems for the party.

Andhra Pradesh

Key Highlights:

- TDP prospects have improved in the last one-month due to shift of undecided voters in favour of the party.

- The percentage of indecisive voters who are likely to review their voting preference closer to election has declined from 15 percent in end February to 7 percent in end March.

- The support for Telangana agitation seems to have saturated. The intensity of the agitation is limited to Warangal, Karimnagar and Medak.

- The Congress - TRS alliance does not be seem to be operating smoothly in Telangana. While the TRS voter is voting for the Congress party the traditional Congress voter is exhibiting certain reservations to vote for TRS.

- The TDP has opted for more fresh candidates and the party list is far more representative and reflective of the social composition of the State.


Main Highlights:

- BJD is likely to do well due to positive perception about its Govt. and the NDA Govt. at Centre.

- Naveen Patniak positioning himself as crusader against corruption has helped the party.

- Although several leaders have left the BJD but it has not resulted in any significant erosion in its vote base.

Sugata Srinivasaraju In Bangalore and Savitri Choudhury in Hyderabad with Poornima Joshi.

in Outlook India, Monday, April 19, 2004.

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