Debating India


The Micro Wave

Smruti Koppikar

Monday 27 September 2004, by KOPPIKAR*Smruti

The Sena-BJP was first off the campaign blocks, but it’s early days on a front runner.

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Atul Loke

The devil is in the details; so is power. Politicians in Maharashtra, gearing up for the assembly polls next month, are living this truism each day.

The BJP, till now macro-managers, is laying all the emphasis on micro-planning and micro-management this time. The idea is to work towards a block of, say, 5,000 votes in each of the 288 constituencies and ensure that these come in on polling day, October 13. The Congress and partner Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have strategically delayed announcement of their list of candidates till the very end. The thought here: limit the effects of rebellion within and any crossover to the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. Meanwhile, bsp chief Mayawati, deeply conscious of her role as spoiler in this election, selected a swank five-star hotel in Mumbai to begin her Maharashtra sojourn, preferring to meet opinion-makers and the media. Barely had she wrapped up a meeting than key people in the hotel were getting calls from "friends" in other political outfits. They wanted to know everything ("What exactly did she say?"), perhaps to decipher what move to make next themselves. Mayawati says she will contest all the seats in Vidarbha. A decision on the other regions of the state is being kept under wraps, as of now.

Election time anywhere is part carnival, part war and mostly back-breaking work. In Maharashtra, it has acquired other dimensions as well. It’s being perceived as a crucial test of Sonia Gandhi’s ability to win elections. The arithmetic of this election has raised curiosity levels like no other. Going by the May results, the Sena-BJP is at an advantage in more than half of the assembly segments. But will this transform into similarly uplifting results this time?

Then, there’s the last-ditch-effort factor at work for some politicians. The 77-year-old Sena chief Bal Thackeray wants to have a say again in who will rule Maharashtra. NCP president Sharad Pawar is keeping indifferent health and would like his men safely ensconced in seats of power. For the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan, winning in Maharashtra could provide the impetus for a re-emergence on the national stage. Mayawati would have found her feet in another significant state, increasing her value at the Centre. For Maharashtra itself, it could be the start of a whole new chapter if a resurgent Sena-BJP manages to seize power.

By all reckoning, this election will be an unusually close one with a handful of seats separating the winning alliance from the losing one. The Sena-BJP begin with a clear advantage-it won in 147 assembly segments compared to 133 by the Congress-NCP in the LS polls. And, it built on this advantage by beginning its campaign early and driving the Congress-NCP government into a corner. The Telgi stamp paper scam, the blatant corruption in police transfers, the malnutrition deaths of over 1,500 children in a year and the unceasing farmers’ suicides were all issues that it raised. Add to that the marginal mileage gained from BJP staples like the Savarkar controversy and Uma Bharati’s tiranga yatra.

But with the people paradigm having shifted from urban middle class to rural poor at the Centre in May, Thackeray announced that should his government come to power, all farmers in the state would get free power. The Congress-NCP government saw the writing on the wall and in the last two months, before the code of conduct came into force, Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde announced sops worth Rs 3,000 crore to wipe out public memory of non-performance.

"There is no particular issue except perhaps the anti-incumbency factor," concedes Anant Gadgil, Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson. "That’s why the Opposition is creating issues like the Afzal Khan tomb demolition at Pratapgarh or the Savarkar issue or Uma Bharati’s yatra." Congress leaders admit privately that internal reports commissioned by the party are not very promising.

"If the rain gods hadn’t taken mercy on us, we would have been in an even worse position politically. The monsoon came, even if saved us," remarks a senior leader.

Matters are equally bad in the NCP. Precious days have been lost in the seat-sharing talks and it has left many in the party bitter. It now has 120-odd seats to the Congress’ 160-plus, any adjustments with political friends must come from this quota. This has resulted in bitter fights for tickets in a dozen constituencies. Both parties have reassured aspirants that they will be "taken care of" if the alliance returns to power.

In the Sena, rivalries between the Thackeray cousins, Uddhav and Raj, have come to the fore. Raj’s supporters are not too enthused about slogging it out in an election which might see Uddhav emerge as CM. But so long as Thackeray Sr calls the shots, the rivalry is contained. Also, the Sena, thanks to its strong cadre, is seeking to carry over the momentum from the 10-day Ganesh festival, which is around election time.

Of the parties, the BJP was off the starting block first. The party even pitched in when the state election commission began its exercise to enrol new voters and update its lists after the LS polls. Party cadres got down to enlisting new voters, some were given specific targets. Like the Parvati constituency in Pune where sustained effort saw the party enlist 27,000 new voters. The BJP had lost Parvati by 20,000 votes last time. "We are comfortably placed but we are working very hard on as many fronts as we can," says Vinod Tawde, general secretary. Aware that flaky controversies will not click, the state unit also lay low during the Savarkar controversy and the tiranga yatra.

Both alliances are also talking to Mayawati. If it’s a fight to the finish, Vidarbha-where Mayawati made all the difference in the LS polls-could prove the decider. The bsp had taken close to 12 per cent votes in this region. "Talks are still on but we won’t be as hurt as last time if she decides to go it alone," says Gadgil. In all this politicking, the real questions are often missed: how does the state plan to tackle the severe drought, reduce the state debt that now stands at Rs 93,000 crore? No party has the time or the inclination to talk about such issues-they are on the backburner now and will be parked there till one of the alliances comes to power.


in "Outlook India", Monday, September 27, 2004.

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