Court blocks poll panel media gag
Prisoners in procedure chains
Poll puppet show in search of an audience
Widow witch-hunt in heart of city
5-man panel to probe ABP fire
Breather for besieged Bellary
Fading star battles to take shine off Sena
Pawar divides Congress and Dalits
Bihar gropes in alliance quicksand
To the readers

Sept. 6: 
The Madras High Court today stayed an Election Commission notification forbidding publication and dissemination of opinion poll results and advertisements by political parties through the electronic media. The notification had been issued by the poll panel on August 20.

While the print media had been allowed to carry ads from political parties exhorting voters to vote for their nominees, the electronic media had been debarred from screening party-sponsored commercials.

The poll panel had also ruled in the same notification that no opinion poll results could be published once polling process began on September 5. Exit poll results could not also be disclosed before counting is taken up on October 5.

The stay was granted by Justice K. Govindarajan, who said the Andhra Pradesh High Court had also issued a stay on a similar petition. The judge issued a notice to the poll panel, the Tamil Nadu chief electoral officer and the home secretary of the state. The petition had been filed by Sun TV, a unit of Sumangali publications. The petitioners had contended that they were unfairly losing revenue due to the the poll panel?s order.

The lawyers, who appeared on behalf of the private channel, said the Election Commission was going beyond its jurisdiction in issuing such a prohibitory order.

They said the poll panel?s job was to supervise the polls and it was not authorised to pass any order that would violate the fundamental rights.

The lawyers also pleaded that the notification was against freedom of speech as enshrined in the Constitution. They said such powers usurped by the commission was not guaranteed to it under Articles 324, 325 and 326 of the Constitution and under any provision of the Representation of the People?s Act.

In New Delhi, election commissioner G.V.G. Krishnamurthi said the poll panel would have to look into the judgment before reaching any decision. But it was more than apparent that the commission will fight for what it feels was a justified decision. The case may finally be decided in the Supreme Court.

Krishnamurthi, however, argued that even in the West, opinion polls are discontinued 48 hours before polling takes place.

The Election Commission feels there was nothing new in its decision. A similar decision had been taken during the last elections to ensure free and fair polls.

The poll panel had earlier said that such a measure would reduce the impact of propaganda because the electronic media is very powerful and often does not allow the average voter to exercise his rational faculties while making his choice.

That is why the poll panel had discriminated against ads carried on the electronic media.

But even in 1998, several television channels in south India had been irked by the poll panel?s decision to ban ads. They had openly campaigned against the order and said they would lose substantial revenue.

It appears that these channels are not really bothered by the order on opinion poll results. Their main difference with the poll panel is over the screening of lucrative party-sponsored ads.

The Madras High Court decision should please the National Democratic Alliance, because the BJP has been bringing out the most number of ads and special supplements in newspapers on achievements of the Vajpayee government.

Party sources agreed that had television commercials been allowed they would have tried to exploit it to the hilt. The Congress has been way behind with regard to putting out ads.    

New Delhi, Sept. 6: 
Pakistan is insisting that the two Indian soldiers it is holding as prisoners will be handed over to New Delhi only through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

India, which had captured eight Pakistani soldiers during the Kargil conflict, had involved the ICRC for their release last month. Islamabad had to identify each of the soldiers. By doing that, India wanted to establish that the soldiers were prisoners of war (PoW) and that the Pakistan army was involved in the Kargil conflict.

Indian foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said the Indian soldiers were not PoWs and were part of an Indian patrol which had ?inadvertently strayed? into Pakistani territory. He refused to say whether India was willing to accept the ICRC?s involvement. ?It is an academic question at this juncture,? he said.

Jassal said the ?speediest way to get the two Indian soldiers released is for the two directors general of military operations (DGMO)s to get in touch?. He said the DGMOs had spoken to each other yesterday to work out details of the release. He claimed that when soldiers of the two countries had strayed into the other?s territory in the past, their release was sorted out by the DGMOs.

But Pakistan claimed the release has been delayed because of official formalities. The two soldiers have to be issued fresh passports by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan said. Exit papers have to be given to them by the Pakistani authorities.

India is accusing Islamabad of trying to score diplomatic brownie points by ?blowing out of proportion? a routine matter.

But Pakistan claims it has only two of the Indian soldiers and were not aware of the other four supposed to be part of the Indian patrol team.

Agency reports from Islamabad, quoting an Interservice Public Relations (ISPR) statement released yesterday, said the Indian claim ? that one of its patrols comprising six armymen, including a captain, was missing in Shyok-Turtuk sector near the Siachen Glacier ? was an ?attempt to twist the facts?.

The statement referred to Indian army chief General V.P. Malik?s remark that he was not aware of the number of Indian soldiers taken prisoner by Pakistan. It said the Indian army ?continues to deceive the world about their offensive designs through such vile propaganda?.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh, going to Nepal on September 8 on a three-day visit, will raise the issue of Pakistan?s Inter-Services-Intelligence activities from Nepal. Indian officials said the Nepalese government was as keen to stop such activities as the Indians.


We went out this morning quite desperately looking for the campaign and found it at last at a rain-drenched streetcorner on the edge of town, struggling to find its feet and an audience.

Two Congress floats mounted with a fierce battery of speakers stood near a cluster of kiosks. An old man, a famed local freedom fighter, they said, had pulled out a microphone from one of the jeeps and was in throes of a charged performance, his lungi typically rolled up, his emaciated loins girded and his gnarled fists pummelling the absent adversary.

?Vajpayee? He was reciting poetry to Nawaz Sharif when the latter was sending his troops into Kargil. Advani? He was more busy trying to upstage Vajpayee than fighting militancy in Kashmir. Fernandes? The defence minister who could not defend India. You want to throw these people out and bring back the Congress. One party, one leader, Sonia Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi.?

A crowd of 20 stood around the one-man theatre, most of them quite happy to be entertained while they waited for their respective buses. ?It?s a free show, isn?t it?? remarked one of them laconically, ?All of them are dancing for us at the moment.? And then he walked away as if saying he had seen it all and wasn?t interested anymore.

The bait for the crowd to gather would come every now and then from the microphone. Muralidharan, son of former Kerala chief minister K. Karunakaran and Congress candidate from Kozhikode, was about to arrive. ?He?s just round the corner from you, he?ll be among you in five minutes.? But they had been saying that for the past hour. The crowds gathered and dissipated as the buses came and went; they weren?t there for Muralidharan, they just happened to be passing.

They don?t seem to be there for anyone this election. ?Kerala is a politically conscious state,? a local teacher hanging about at the streetshow reminds us. ?So, conscious people have realised there is not much to be had from getting too involved in these elections, or any nowadays.?

There are more cinema posters in Kozhikode than election banners or buntings and movie halls remain a bigger draw than election meetings, which are anyhow few and far between. Go around Kozhikode and you wouldn?t even believe there is a contest on less than a week from now.

C.M. Ibrahim, former Union minister and high-profile Janata Dal(Secular) rival of Muralidharan, is running a decidedly low-profile campaign. His camp headquarters in a still-under-construction hotel is padlocked. Stacks of handbills and posters lie scattered among piles of brick and cement. Ibrahim himself is not in town, but a handful of his workers promises he will ?storm in? soon and cause the big upset of the Kerala elections by defeating Karunakaran?s son.

?Don?t forget Kozhikode?s electorate is nearly 40 per cent Muslim. They are all behind Ibrahimsaab.? So, is the secular party playing the communal card here, then? ?No, no,? they protest, ?it is just that the Congress has decided to play the Hindu card, so we have to respond somehow.?

The people are still indifferent to the polls, but the political circuit is ravished by delicious rumour: Karunakaran has shifted from Thiruvananthapuram to make it easy for the BJP?s O. Rajagopal. The quid pro quo: Hindu votes for his son Muralidharan in Kozhikode.

The Left Democratic Front (LDF) may be supporting Ibrahim on paper, but in reality, the Marxists are helping the Congress; after all, in Delhi they are on Sonia Gandhi?s side, aren?t they?

Kozhikode is not an election the Marxists are excited about. And, for all the Muslim support Ibrahim might be claiming in the squalid fishing slums that hug the coast, when will the Muslim League come good for the Congress? The Muslim ghettos around the decayed Kozhikode port could do with a messiah but they don?t believe one had arrived yet.

?Ibrahim?? a hardware shop-owner on the seafront asked incredulously, ?But he?s an outsider, most of his politics is in Karnataka. What good is he to us?? Isn?t that a question a lot many may also be asking about Sonia Gandhi?    

Calcutta, Sept. 6: 
She lost her husband and daughter within months of each other. That should have been as bad as it gets. But for 35-year-old Urmila Mullick, the twin deaths were just the end of the beginning of her nightmare.

In the heart of the city, just behind Calcutta?s shopping hub New Market, Urmila was branded a witch in the sweeper colony where she lives. Hounded for months, she was nearly beaten to death last week. Today, she came with her sorry tale to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC).

Urmila?s husband Sunelal, a sweeper with the CMC, died last year. Her daughter died after that. Things got worse for Urmila when others in the colony found out that she had lost another daughter when Sunelal was alive.

Every morning, as Urmila emerged from her hovel, she would be greeted with taunts and abuses. The residents of the colony called then a meeting and branded Urmila a witch.

Before long, Urmila ? who had got her husband?s job after his death ? found that she was being held responsible for anyone falling ill in the colony. People began harrying her for money to pay for the medicine to ?cure the illness she had caused?.

?People would shout, ?You are a witch, you devoured your husband and daughter.? They used to hound me at night too. I thought they would kill me,? Urmila said.

Urmila had to borrow money to meet the demands. She found no one to help her. ?I have lodged several complaints with the Taltala police station. They did nothing. I came begging to the CMC. No one believed me,? she said.

On the night of August 24, Urmila was woken up. ?Somebody was trying to smash the door open. About 10 men were screaming that I was responsible for someone falling ill. They wanted Rs 5,000,? Urmila said. She did not have the money. The men battered her relentlessly. As she crumpled, they continued kicking her stomach. ?The last thing I heard was, ?You witch, we?ll cut you to pieces. Get out.? I fainted,? Urmila said. Eventually, her son took her to Calcutta Medical College Hospital. The headman of the sweeper colony, Biswanath Mullick, said Urmila was beaten up by ?hooligans who live in the colony?. ?They have fled. I do not believe in superstition.? He said it was impossible to control the culprits.

Officers at the Taltala police station said they are looking into the matter. Swapan Mahapatra, district conservancy officer of borough VI, said he will speak to the commissioner about this.

Urmila has nowhere to go. ?I cannot return to Bihar because word will travel. I will be called a witch there too. This is my last resort,? she said.    

Calcutta, Sept. 6 
The state government today formed a five-member committee to probe the blaze that ravaged the top floor of ABP Ltd?s office on Friday.

Municipal affairs minister Ashok Bhattacharya said the committee will submit its report in six weeks. The committee is headed by municipal affairs secretary Ashok Mohan Chakraborty and will include municipal commissioner Asim Barman, DC DD Narayan Ghosh, director of forensic laboratory N.K. Nag and fire services director B.B. Pathak. The deputy director of fire services, Baren Sen, has been made member secretary of the committee.

Early on Friday, a fire devasted the third floor which housed the editorial office of the Anandabazar Patrika, circulation, accounts and advertisement departments of the company.

Narayan Ghosh told reporters this evening that forensic experts collected seven samples from the debris, four from the western side of the accounts department and three from the main door to the department.

According to him, the fire broke out at 3.30 am on Friday, but the electricity connection was intact. He ruled out short circuit as the cause of the fire. ``What is surprising is that the smoke alarm did not go off even though the power connection was intact. We have asked the ABP authorities to repair the wiring and operate the smoke alarm. If it goes off now, we will have to look at the sabotage angle,?? he said.

Forensic experts are also trying to find out whether any chemical caused the fire. According to the preliminary forensic report, the fire orginated from the accounts department located on the northwestern side of the building and then spread to other parts.

Chief minister Jyoti Basu today held a meeting with home (police) minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya and Ashok Bhattacharya. He said all newspaper offices in the city are included in the government list of ?high-risk buildings??. The meeting also decided that a team of experts from the fire services department will inspect newspaper buildings regularly and check fire safety arrangements.

The experts will then recommend measures if they find that fire safety arrangements are inadequate in any of the buildings. The government will act on the proposals.

Ashok Bhattacharya, accompanied by his departmental secretary and the director of fire services, visited the spot today and met company officials. The committee members have visited the spot and examined the debris.

The minister said the committee will study a number of aspects. It will investigate the cause of the fire, whether the fire-fighting arrangements in the building were adequate, if the modern fire-fighting system installed in the building worked.

Moreover, if the system did not operate, the committee will have to find out the reasons. ?The team will investigate whether there were any lapses on the part of the fire brigade while dousing the flames. The structural aspect of the building will also be taken into consideration,?? the minister said.


For 15 days, Bellary was in a tizzy. The frenzy died down only yesterday as people queued up to tip the scales in favour of Sonia, or Sushma. Having decided the outcome of the swadeshi vs videshi battle, the town has returned to its pre-poll soporific days.

?We will have to wait for a month to know the results,? said a resident of Bellary. As political leaders and reporters began zooming out of the constituency, Bellarians sank into a reverie about the fast-paced events of the past few days.

Had Sonia not made a furtive trip to Bellary to file her nomination and had the BJP not fielded the feisty Sushma Swaraj against her, the constituency would never have brushed shoulders with such VIPs and savoured the power of being the focus of national and international attention.

If Sonia manages to keep the Congress pocket borough with her party, Bellary will glitter under strobelights. Even if Sushma wins, the constituency will continue to hog attention ? if only by pushing out the deeply rooted Congress which has monopolised Bellary since 1952.

After the campaign roller-coaster, Bellary will miss the bluster of a raucous slandering match between the Congress and the BJP.

Sushma was thrashing Sonia for her Italian origin and the Congress campaign-in-charge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, was hurling abuses at the BJP for questioning the right of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty to rule the country.

?Sushma Swaraj has the gall to question Sonia Gandhi?s credentials for being the Prime Minister. I would like to say she is Rajiv Gandhi?s widow, Indira Gandhi?s daughter-in-law ? Indira Gandhi was Jawaharlal Nehru?s daughter ? Jawaharlal Nehru was Motilal Nehru?s son,? Azad says at a public meeting

For a fortnight, Bellary was bombarded with a campaign blast, the BJP?s far louder than that of the Congress.

For Bellarians, it was a sudden invasion by political activists and the media from all parts of the country and outside.

At the BJP office, there were hundreds of activists from the party?s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), many of them full-timers who had been rushed from all over Karnataka to Bellary.

?What you see is not the BJP, but the ABVP and the RSS at work,? said an insider.

In fact, Sushma?s own entourage of relatives and friends from Delhi had camped in Bellary to provide her ?moral strength?.

?We are friends of Sushma and the BJP and have come here from Gulmohar Park of South Delhi to shore her up in the campaign,? said N.S. Vishwanath, president, Infotech Private Limited.

He has spent years in the United States and is now positioning himself for an entry into active politics.

?In the US, I used to campaign for Democrats and here I think the BJP is the only answer to the country,? added the corporate hotshot.

Sushma?s troops from Delhi hovered in the background of her campaign. ?After all she is far away from Delhi ? she needs some support,? said a friend.

Insiders in the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh are quick to point out it is not the BJP cadre which has made a different to Sushma?s campaign ? it is the ABVP and RSS activists who have branched out to different parts of the constituency and are churning the stagnant political waters.

?The BJP does not have any cadre here and could not have done the kind of intense campaigning we have done,? said an ABVP activist.

Thanks to Sonia and Sushma, Bellary was yanked out of its humdrum existence and dragged through the colourful jousting of the two main parties, BJP and the Congress, even if the drama lasted only a fortnight.    

Balwant Khosa politely whispers the word ?Muslim? into his ears. Sunil Dutt slackens his pace, stares at the cramped, garishly green, three-storeyed building to his right. His tired legs skid, the dark brown chappals, long unused to such discomfiture, whine and screech. The film star almost stumbles. A grimace tightens around his wrinkled chin as he regains his balance and brings the padayatra to a halt.

It is evening in Versova, a fishermen?s colony to the north of Andheri, where a sea-smell mixed with the odour of drying fish drowns the senses. The bylanes remind one of the congested, shrunken path that leads to the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi.

Here the alleys and pathways are never wider than ten feet and the procession moves in a single file. Dutt could not have possibly struck out this slum from his campaign schedule. Low caste kolis or fishermen and the Muslims are traditional Congress voters.

Nanavati (name changed), a retired sex worker from Kamathipura (Mumbai version of Sonagachhi), looks on. This correspondent would have known nothing about her profession had not a jealous Savitri Bai (a self-proclaimed diehard Congress supporter from Andheri) provided her detailed curriculum vitae with a slur in her voice.

Nanavati, wondering why her ?hero? has stopped, shouts ?Sunil Dutt? at the top of her voice. Savitri angrily turns her face away. A puzzled Nanavati looks around her because there is no answering cry of ?zindabad? from others in the procession.

Khosa, the Congress nominee from the Andheri Assembly seat, drops back and warns Nanavati with a silent index finger that she should not speak out of turn. This evening is very important for Khosa. He has managed to bring over Dutt, the glamourous parliamentary candidate, and expects to derive the maximum mileage from it.

He is not going to let these awkward, embarrassing Nanavatis hijack this opportunity to score a point or two. The BJP-Shiv Sena boys are thundering around in this constituency with their Kargil banners and pamphlets, eulogising the great Atal Behari Vajpayee. Dutt is his last hope and densely-populated Versova and its cantankerous fishermen will lap up whatever Dutt in his filmi style can offer.

Khosa gropes for the portable microphone as Nanavati quietly slides back to the tail of the file and awaits her chance to shout ?Sunil Dutt zindabad? yet again. He introduces Dutt solemnly and hopes for an applause from the audience, but there is silence all around and a breeze overpowers the audience with mustier sea smell. Khosa has never been an orator and he fumbles for the right word.

He makes his routine pledges which he has probably memorised. He would have gone on a little longer but the local young men, who are approaching the halted procession from another end of the now-crowded lane, let out a vociferous ?Sunil Dutt zindabad? slogan. Nanavati grabs her chance and together they drown Khosa in a sea of voices.

Dutt now has the mike in his hand. He is no foreigner to this constituency. Andheri, Bandra, Ville Parle, Santa Cruz had all stood by him through three elections and sent him to Parliament from Mumbai North-West in 1984, 89 and 91.

He tries to invoke the long-lost romantic in him but it is more the voice of a tired, unconvincing politician that comes through. Dutt speaks of the communal malaise in Mumbai, the distrust between communities that had exploited to the hilt by the ?fundamentalist forces?.

The aged and somewhat jaded film star does not refer to Shiv Sainiks by name. And his voice lacks conviction as he dwells on this flagrant topic. It is common knowledge in Mumbai that Dutt had to fall back on Balasaheb Thackeray to have his son, Sunjay, bailed out following his arrest under Tada.

Even Nanavati is fidgety. The speech degenerates into a drawl as Dutt expounds on stability, on the Indianness of his leader, Sonia Gandhi, on the regeneration of a Congress minus Sharad Pawar, on the civic maladies in Versova which were never addressed. He apologises for not having been there to share the locals? problems in 1996 and 1998 because of ?pressing family problems? (he means Sunjay?s long detention).

Khosa?s long brigade of lackeys realise that their VIP visitor is not doing a sound job. The uninspiring, lacklustre speech leaves little impression and people return to their work. From a telephone booth, someone shouts at the top of his voice looking for a number in Kanpur. Haggling begins at the vegetable stall not far away.

A midget, one of Khosa?s cohorts, draws this correspondent aside and insists that the congestion and the stench is all part of Versova?s lifestyle but the people here are rich. ?You?ll be surprised. Most fishermen here have four kg of gold in their homes,?? he whispers.

Dutt ends his 25-minute speech. The Muslims step out of their houses. The fishermen greet him. These handshakes, these folding of hands ? they lack warmth. Dutt feels he has done a good job. Khosa looks worried. And the procession moves forward.

At the Ganesh temple ahead, the brakes are applied again. The Muslims have been wooed. Now the Marathi-speaking fisher- men need to be spoken to. The portable microphone emerges from Khosa?s palm.

This seat has been won twice in succession by Shiv Sena?s Madhukar Sarpotdar, a man who moved around Mumbai slums with a revolver in hand during the ?92 riots.

Sarpotdar has been indicted by the Srikrishna Commission. But that is a matter of pride for a man who relishes Muslim-baiting. Sarpotdar?s campaign office in Bandra smacks of complacency. A smug Marathi youth agrees Dutt is a good candidate, better than Tushar Gandhi who was the main rival for Sarpotdar last time.

But what could Dutt do to thwart Ramesh Dubey, Sharad Pawar?s Nationalist Congress Party nominee? Whatever Dubey gains is a loss for Sunil Dutt. And Sarpotdar, the office-bearer insists, will leave them far behind because of the split.

In the Kamathipura red light district, where Dutt ties rakhis around the thin and shrivelled wrists of sex workers, the likes of Nanavati put their foot down. ?Who will vote for Shiv Sena. Their police harass us. Their goons harass us,? they say.

An exhausted Dutt may be fading but he is not completely out in Mumbai North-West.    

Nearly a decade ago, angry Dalits had thrown slippers at Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar. Dalits were fuming because they believed Tendulkar had portrayed them in a poor light in his play Kanyadan.

At the centre of the dispute was the character of a Dalit poet who had married an upper caste girl. He would come back home drunk and beat his wife up. What the Dalits did not realise was that the progressive Tendulkar was criticising the crocodile tears shed in the name of removing caste barriers in contemporary Maharashtra.

It was around this time, in the late Eighties, that the Dalits were showing signs of congealing into a force to reckon with. Trampled upon for decades by Brahmins and Marathas, they were finally finding a few strong voices. Like Namdeo Dhasal, a real-life poet who, like Tendulkar?s character in Kanyadan, had married a Brahmin college mate. No wonder the Dalits were furious and boycotted all productions associated with Tendulkar for quite some time. But the movement dissipated fast. The likes of Dhasal had bloated egos. Dalit leaders had glorified visions of themselves as towering figures. In reality, their influence was restricted to their kinsmen and cohorts and never really reached the masses.

Yet, Maharashtra has a Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe population of almost 15 per cent. And none other than Sharad Pawar has understood the significance of this vote bank in recent times. He knew that these votes would always be divided, because nearly half that 15 per cent comprised Ambedkarite Neo-Buddhists.

In the early Nineties, as the Shiv Sena movement gathered momentum and Bal Thackeray united the Marathi upper and middle classes with the single slogan of Jai Maharashtra, Dalit hopes to stand up and speak for themselves petered away. A tactically sound Pawar waited in the wings to bring these votes back to the Congress.

An incident in 1997 at Ghatkopar in north-east Mumbai, where police shot 10 Dalits, inspired Pawar to persuade Dalit faction leaders to bury their differences and climb on to his election vehicle, which the Muslims had already boarded.

In 1998, the results were a foregone conclusion. The Congress won hands down because apart from Marathis disillusioned with the Shiv Sena-BJP government, the Muslims and Dalits (a combined 27 per cent of the electorate) were also backing the party.

That advantage has been frittered away. With Pawar?s departure from the Congress, the Dalits are again disoriented.

The three factions have split again and in some constituencies, such as Mumbai North Central, a Republican Party of India nominee is fighting another party candidate of only a marginally different hue.

Some RPI stalwarts have abandoned their past constituencies to avoid ignominious defeats.

Ramdas Athavale and his chunk of the RPI are holding Sharad Pawar?s hand. The Prakash Ambedkar led RPI group and another faction led by the Gavai-Kavade duo have opted to stay with the Congress.

Ambedkar, grandson of the B.R. Ambedkar, would have gone along with Pawar if the Nationalist Congress Party had any base in his constituency, Akola. Similarly Gavai and Kavade had no option but to tie up with the Congress because of their limited influence in areas within Vidarbha and Marathwada ? areas where the NCP base has not yet expanded.

Athavale, Pawar?s trusted Dalit leader, stayed on with his mentor but changed his seat. As soon as he heard that Shiv Sena was nominating former chief minister Manohar Joshi from Mumbai North-Central, he escaped to Pandarpur (SC), a seat in the prosperous western sugar belt, considered Pawar?s realm.

Of the four leaders ? Gavai, Kavade, Ambedkar and Athavale, all of whom won in 1998 ? at least two are expected to make it to Parliament. Two others may fail because of the split in the anti-BJP, anti-Shiv Sena votes. The Dalit movement is again fizzling out in Maharashtra.    

The new alliances in Bihar, led on one side by Laloo Prasad Yadav and on the other by the BJP, are likely to give a new twist to the outcome of the century?s last polls.

Both alliances have their own lacunae.

Conflicts, such as those between erstwhile Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar and the BJP over the inclusion of Anand Mohan in the alliance, or the ongoing ?cold war? between the Congress and Laloo Yadav?s RJD, are bound to take their toll.

The Laloo-led group?s final goal is to checkmate the BJP. The National Democratic Alliance?s aim is to instal Atal Behari Vajpayee at the Centre and dethrone Laloo subsequently. But these ?ultimate goals? refuse to reduce the bickerings within the alliances.

The Samata-Janata Dal (U) combine, which is contesting 25 seats, having set aside 29 for the BJP, appears to be the most formidable axis.

The BJP and its allies claim they will take their tally from 32 to at least 40 in these elections. They hope to secure the additional eight seats from north Bihar.

The BJP hopes that with Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav on its side, it will be able to consolidate the support of the backward classes as well as the Koeris and Kurmis.

The Janata Dal (U) is optimistic about a decisive result in its favour in north Bihar, altering the fate of six sitting MPs. In the 1998 elections, the combined Janata-Samata votes numbered more than the votes polled by the RJD.

Riding on the Kargil wave, the BJP, which so far drew its strength from the Jharkhand area, plans to take the battle to north Bihar where Laloo?s Muslim-Yadav formula has kept him solidly in the saddle.

Many wonder, however, whether the Dalit votes will shift to the BJP and its allies. The backward voters, who supported the Janata Dal in 1998, might turn away this time. ?The anti-Lalooism among Dalits did not take the form of a storm to put out the fire of the lantern.

Anti-incumbency sentiments in remote districts have never helped the Opposition,? said a researcher in a private social science organisation here.

That Laloo?s ?dwindling popularity? has not coincided with the rising graph of any other backward leader has gone to his advantage, analysts point out. In the 1998 elections, the Janata Dal got only one seat while Laloo?s RJD got 17. This is proof that the vote share is fast shifting from the Janata Dal to the RJD, the researcher said.

Laloo?s problems, however, stem from his own allies. Congress, assigned mostly to take on the BJP in south Bihar, is not a strong player.

The CPM, with its limited pockets of influence in Purnea and Bhagalpur, is not expected to add much to the tally. With the departure of the CPI, Laloo has lost a potential ally. His last-ditch attempt to win over the CPI (ML) Liberation also did not work out.

In Bihar, which is polarised between pro and anti-Laloo forces, the third front is of little significance.

The third force here is made up of Jagannath Mishra?s Bharatiya Jan Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party and BJP rebel Tarakant Jha?s Bihar Vikash Party. This group has fielded 32 candidates across the state.

However, it is not likely to make any impact on the poll results except in Mithilanchal, where both Mishra and Jha wield some influence.

With neither the Yadav nor minority voters expected to behave differently since the last elections, the Dalit vote is crucial and both sides have gone all out to woo the most backward classes with rallies and raths.    

The Telegraph website today is a truncated edition because of Friday?s fire. We hope to bring you the full edition soon. Please bear with us. Apart from front there is link to the east section.    

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