The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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When the Congress announced, in Simla last July, its willingness to form coalitions with like-minded secular parties, it had in mind the assembly elections in the Hindi heartland. However, joining Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government was ruled out by the Congress high command, overriding the wishes of the Uttar Pradesh state unit, in order to maintain cordial relationships with Yadav’s bête noire, Mayavati. An alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party, howsoever informal, in Chhatisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress is facing the threat of anti-incumbency, will secure for it the much-needed scheduled caste vote to tilt the balance in its favour.

The Congress, in 1998, had belied the anti-incumbency trend in Madhya Pradesh, but the going is tougher this time. Madhya Pradesh’s poor infrastructure and power crisis are a source of embarrassment. The Congress’s soft Hindutva might also come a cropper. The difference in vote share between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party has been marginal so far. In 1998, the Congress garnered 40.59 per cent of the votes in contrast to 39.25 per cent of the BJP. But this difference translated into as many as 52 extra seats for the Congress.

In 1993, the vote share was 40.73 per cent and 38.82 per cent for the Congress and the BJP respectively; yet the difference of seats translated into 57. The BSP, with its 11 seats (1998) and 6.5 per cent of the vote share, is crucial for the Congress’s hopes. Which is why in its list of 220 candidates, the party nominated several more Dalits, other backward classes and women than in 1998.

Votes on hire

It is in Madhya Pradesh that Congress leaders have hinted at some “understanding” with the BSP. The Congress strategically desisted from announcing candidates to 10 seats in the Gwalior-Chambal region, where the BSP won 25 of 34 seats in the last elections. While the BSP’s desire to play kingmaker may come to fruition in Madhya Pradesh in case of a hung assembly, the party recently suffered a setback. Phool Singh Baraiya broke away to form the Samata Samaj Party and the BJP has already made overtures towards it.

In Chhatisgarh, the Congress is hoping to secure a 32 per cent adivasi vote share in rural areas, given Ajit Jogi’s background. This, combined with 12 per cent Dalit support, can secure it 44 per cent of the votes. While here too the BSP is willing to “help” the Congress in some seats, factionalism within the Congress might negate the advantage.

The BJP is also battling factionalism between its tribal leaders and those representing trading and community interests. An alliance with smaller parties seems to be the only way out for both the all-India parties.

Advantage Congress

In Delhi, the Congress has little to gain from the BSP. The latter has thus far won no seat in the assembly. As the last elections showed, a majority of Sikhs and Muslims voted for the Congress, pushing its vote share to over 44 per cent. A similar story is being enacted in Rajasthan, where the BSP has consistently claimed the support of lower castes in the areas bordering Madhya Pradesh. In 1998, the Congress had regained some of the support it traditionally had among the lower castes and the minorities. A good monsoon in an election year will also serve the party well. The Congress vote share was an impressive 44.95 per cent in 1998 solely because of the virtual elimination of the third front — the Janata Dal. The BSP, on the other hand, has been unable to emerge as a viable third alternative in the state.

Although it may appear that the BSP’s decision not to put up candidates against the Congress in some constituencies to prevent a split in the anti-BJP vote is part of an understanding, the move speaks more of desperation on the BSP’s part. Riven by factionalism in Madhya Pradesh as well as in Rajasthan, the party is viewed more as a regional than a national player. More than an informal alliance with the BSP, it could be factionalism within the BJP that might work to the Congress’s advantage in all four states.

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