Feb. 25: Three states of the troubled Northeast and Himachal Pradesh will go to polls tomorrow in the biggest such exercise before the mini-general elections this year-end and the national bout next year.
The outcome of this round will offer an insight into how the electorate will behave post-Gujarat in states where the Sangh parivar’s brand of Hindutva has little significance. Political parties will also be splitting hairs over the results in their hunt for clues to the Assembly elections that lie ahead in several states.
For the Northeast, the elections offer an opportunity to gauge the impact of the recently-concluded Nagaland peace talks on the ground.
The possibility of bullets interfering in the battle of ballots is weighing heavy on the official apparatus in Nagaland and Tripura where extremists are waging a bloody campaign against non-tribals — an euphemism for people from outside the state.
Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura collectively have a 42 lakh-strong electorate and 180 Assembly seats, being contested by as many as 812 candidates. In Assam, there will be a byelection to the Ratabari seat, which has been vacant since the death of the sitting MLA last year.
The security bandobast in Tripura reflects the extent to which law and order in the state has deteriorated. Three tribals — all CPM supporters — were killed by militants of the National Liberation Front of Tripura overnight.
Among the victims was a 27-year-old tribal woman, Lamirung Reang, who was waylaid by a group of NLFT collaborators and gangraped before being strangled to death in south Tripura last night. The woman was returning from an election meeting in the Bhatkhola market.
The Election Commission, too, is leaving nothing to chance. It has provided insurance cover to 13,800 polling personnel and 14,000 security personnel deployed in militant-infested areas.
In Nagaland, the situation is only slightly better. Fearing interference by militants in the electoral process, the administration has clamped night curfew throughout the state.
The sole exception is Meghalaya, where militants have so far steered clear of the election scene. The electorate is hoping for a stable government, one that will go the distance instead of making way for another after a few months. “Governments in our state crumble like the Indian cricket team,” a voter said.
In Himachal, campaign indicators suggest a close race, but the Congress appears to be ahead of the ruling BJP on the eve of polls.
On the face of it, there is no perceptible anti-incumbency wave against the Prem Kumar Dhumal government and observers say the chief minister could hope for another term on the relative strength of his government’s “development agenda”.
Yet, a “sentiment for change” has been noticeable all through the campaign trail. Though the BJP made the development issue its central poll plank, the Congress has been successful in pushing the ruling party on the defensive through effective counter-campaign, virtually depriving Dhumal of his key plank by playing up corruption and unemployment.
The Centre’s last budget, too, has helped the Congress. Himachal has a disproportionately large number of government servants, servicemen, and pensioners and the budget, particularly the interest rate cuts, has not gone down well with this segment that according to some estimates constitutes around a sixth of the voting population.
BJP state leaders were banking on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “charisma” but the Prime Minister’s campaign does not appear to have turned the tide in the ruling party’s favour. Rather, in all four of his public rallies, the Prime Minister appeared defensive.
By contrast, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, who addressed five rallies in the penultimate stages of the fortnight-long campaign, came across as “combative”. With Hindutva hardly an issue, star campaigners like deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi could make little impact.
Yet, the Congress camp remains edgy about converting the perceived advantage into a clear victory.
Part of the anxiety is because of Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, who gave a big boost to the party’s campaign when he talked about Dhumal’s alleged properties in Jalandhar worth several crores of rupees.
But “raids” on these properties yielded little. Though Amarinder was quietly withdrawn from the campaign, observers say this has damaged the party’s poll cause.
The more important reasons are to do with the party’s failure to prevent rebels from entering the fray against official nominees and its inability to have Sukh Ram’s Himachal Vikas Congress on its side.
Should it turn out to be a close fight in the 65 (out of the 68) constituencies that are going to polls tomorrow, these two factors might be the Congress’ undoing.