The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Now-or-never Laloo in last push

Patna, Feb. 22: Wednesday will decide which way the pendulum will eventually swing in an amazing electoral seesaw in Bihar.

Election is over for 150 seats but the remaining 93 constituencies will go for polling tomorrow.

Nobody save the politicians is saying they are sure of the outcome; but everybody, including the politicians ranging from Laloo Prasad Yadav to Nitish Kumar, is convinced that the results will be 'startling'.

A key factor for the 'close' and 'unpredictable' outcome is held to be the 'K.J. Rao phenomenon'. Rao, the Election Commission's special observer, is seen to be responsible for several decisions taken by the commission to rein in muscle and money power, reduce bogus voting and prevent capture of booths.

So rattled are some political parties that a public interest petition was moved before Patna High Court, seeking orders to restrain Rao. The high court, in an unprecedented action, chose initially to serve notice on the commission and demanded a reply by February 21. Eventually though, the issue was adjourned to March.

Rao, who has been supervising the polling in a helicopter, is credited with moves designed to restrict movement of 'dons', ensure the presence of paramilitary forces inside those booths which had recorded abnormally high polling in earlier elections and in making presiding officers and Election Commission observers accountable.

The decision to hold repolls in booths recording over 70 per cent polling has also been instrumental in neutralising greatly the effects of 'booth capturing'. Coupled with the strict adherence to the norms fixed for identification of voters, the steps have resulted in one of the fairest polls witnessed in Bihar for a long time.

T.N. Seshan, the colourful and controversial chief election commissioner in the nineties, barked but Rao also bites, a senior politician explained.

The steps are held responsible for the low but 'genuine' polling in the state; they have also led to the detection of a large number of 'voters' who either do not exist or who do not live in the area. It also appears that the steps have hurt political parties uniformly as nobody is complaining. Even the petition against Rao was filed by an unknown person and not by recognised political parties or politicians.

Predicting the outcome of a 'fair poll', quipped a bureaucrat, is virtually impossible. With far too many candidates in the fray, he added, there are also a large number of constituencies, over 50 of them, which are 'marginal' and can swing either way.

Yet, Laloo Prasad is perceived to be fighting one of the toughest electoral battles this time. The battle for Bihar has turned out to be a battle between two central ministers, a strange spectacle in contemporary politics, with both Ram Vilas Paswan and Laloo Prasad denouncing each other relentlessly all through the campaign.

While Paswan attacked Laloo Prasad's record of governance and questioned his secular credentials ('Did Laloo ever go to Godhra' Indeed, does he even know where the place is' I resigned from the cabinet on this issue'), Laloo Prasad warned his flock of Paswan's close connections with 'communal forces'.

But it is finally Paswan's relentless and sustained campaign which created the impression that the Yadav strongman is 'beatable' on his home ground. This also provided an alternative rallying point for the minorities, hurting the Rashtriya Janata Dal in many places.

Paswan has not just hurt Laloo Prasad, but has also wounded the BJP. His 'upper caste' candidates are seen to have split the traditional upper-caste voters of the BJP, too, in many constituencies, making the election look like a Russian roulette. He is unlikely to win too many seats, agree observers, but who is he going to hurt more'

Laloo Prasad might, however, benefit from the split in opposition votes among LJP, Congress and the NDA.

But his trump card has been his own presence in New Delhi. 'Now that we have our own government at the Centre,' has been his constant refrain, 'it is important that you give us a chance to form the government in the state'. It is now that he can do something for Bihar. It is 'now or never' for the Rashtriya Janata Dal and RJD posters declare: 'Vikas ' abhi nahin to kabhi nahin (Development ' now or never).'

Sunday, the day of counting, will settle whether the voters have been influenced by his argument or the poser of his rivals, who have been asking simply: 'Paanch saal phir' (Five more years')'

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